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Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we should also press for something else? The Government have done much to ensure that concessionary fares are available in parts of the country. He represents a London constituency. Should we not have a similar generous scheme throughout the country for people who live in constituencies such as mine?
I welcome that intervention. Just eight months ago we presented to Parliament a petition calling for a national system of concessionary fares. One of the most popular things that the Greater London council didI say this as a former Greater London council member and chair of its finance committee, which paid for the schemewas to introduce the concessionary fares scheme for retired people in London, which had cross-party support. That popular policy endeared the GLC to people and has been maintained by the London Mayor. Not only would that be a wonderful investment in terms of improving the quality of life of many older people, but it would also help to maintain the bus service overall because the increased usage would attract other members of the
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family on to the buses as well. I would hope that that would have cross-party support, and I wholeheartedly support the proposal.
It is disappointing that there is no primary legislation to cover the maritime industry. Some references have been made to ports today, but no overall direction was given in the Queen's Speech on future legislation on the industry. As an island nation dependent on shipping for over 90 per cent. of our trade, the UK needs to maintain its maritime skills, but over the past 20 years the number of seafarer ratings in the UK has declined from 30,000 to 10,000. That decline represents a significant threat to our future prosperity, our trade and, given the role played by the merchant navy in any military action in the past, our security. The experience and expertise of British seafarers is respected worldwide, and we must not allow the skills base to be further eroded or the decline in that traditional native industry to continue.
The tonnage tax, part of the programme of assistance to the shipping industry which we all welcomed in the House, was a significant concession to the industry. Shipping companies that enter the tonnage tax regime pay a notional tax levy according to the size of the company fleet, as opposed to the normal form of taxation based on company profits. So far, the concession has been worth at least £70 million to the industry and, as I said, has been broadly welcomed by us all. At the time of its introduction, it was the Government's hope that the granting of such favourable concessions would improve the economic climate for UK shipping so that increased numbers of UK ships would enter the register, which would in turn generate increased employment opportunities for UK seafaring officers and ratings.
Unfortunatelythis matter was raised in an Adjournment debate earlier this monthdespite those measures the increase in employment for UK seafarers has not materialised. The companies have received the tax concession and it has been at least double the amount originally predicted by all sides, including the Government, yet the jobs have not been forthcoming. UK seafarers continue to be dismissed and replaced by low-cost foreign nationals on what can only be described as exploitative pay and conditions. I welcome the fact that in recent months the Government have given a commitment to consider whether a firm employment link for seafaring officers and ratings should be introduced as a condition for qualifying for the tonnage tax concession. I firmly believe that the shipping companies should play their part in ensuring that the UK can retain the skills that will help to protect our future security and prosperity and our seafaring and maritime industry.
The maritime unions strongly support a firmer link between the tonnage tax and employment and training for UK seafarers. As a substantial taxpayer concession, that tax must now be used to help to achieve the increase in UK seafarers' employment originally spelled out in the "Charting a New Course" White Paper.
A sense of urgency has been created by the actions of P&O, which has just launched a major cost-cutting exercise, with 1,200 seafarers facing redundancy and
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many of those who will be left threatened with cuts in pay and conditions or adverse changes to their working practices. Cross-party representations have been made to the company, and I am grateful for the work that has been done by all political parties to impress on P&O the importance of engaging in proper consultation and negotiation with the trade unions. However, the devastating job cuts are being threatened in what is already a very precarious situation for UK seafarers, especially ratings.
Despite receiving substantial concessions from the taxpayer in the form of the tonnage tax, P&O has made a decision that means that it will withdraw from virtually all its existing western channel routes, leaving a monopoly position for Brittany Ferries. It will also significantly cut its operations at two other ports. The dismissals are accompanied by cuts in pay and conditions for many existing seafarers and a crude attempt by P&O to force some employees out of the industry on redundancy terms lower than their current contractual entitlement. We need to join forces across the House to condemn the company's actions. The Government must intervene and raise the matter directly with the company and the employers' organisation, the Chamber of Shipping Ltd. We desperately need a long-term strategy for the future of the UK ferry industryparticular account should be taken of the fact that the French Government provide support to secure their interests in the cross-channel trades.
I should like to raise one further matter with regard to shipping, which I regret was not addressed in the Queen's Speech, although there was opportunity to do so. The Government must address the fact that they still permit discrimination on the ground of nationality in the shipping workplace. UK seafarers working on UK ships are still excluded from the full provisions of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Astonishingly, the Government's explanation is that the only aspect of a person's employment on which there may be discrimination is pay, and the only ground on which there may be discrimination is that of nationality. Ship owners can therefore continue to discriminate on the basis of race and colour, for example. An ethnic Indian worker recruited abroad to work on a UK ship will not be able to claim discrimination on the basis of race or colour, because the employer is legally able to argue that discrimination is on the basis of nationality. For that reason alone the moral argument for outlawing discrimination on the ground of nationality is clear.
Ministers will be aware that the European Commission is examining that practice. It recently stated that it believes that European Community law may not allow for the payment of lower wages to fellow European citizens on EU-flagged vessels, and the Government should adopt a similar view. There is a moral obligation to end such exploitation and discrimination against seafarers, and we call on the Government to include all seafarers in all employment and equal rights legislation. It cannot be appropriate in this century that people can be discriminated against in such a waydoing the same job for different rates of pay and under different conditions just because they come from a different country.
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There are real opportunities in this Queen's Speech to look forward to an integrated, fully funded transport strategy, but I do not believe that it can be undertaken on the basis of the railways in private hands, by giving concessions to ship owners to which they do not respond by ensuring the employment of seafarers, or given the exploitation of workers on grounds of discrimination and nationality. I hope that the Government will consider amending the proposed legislation and introducing new Bills that will put our transport system on not only a well-funded basis, but a fair basis that serves the general public and the interests of the country.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): There can be little doubt that, of the three subjects for debate this afternoon, the environmental problems facing this countryindeed our planetare by far the most serious. It is on that subject that I wish to begin.
We must note with great concern that carbon dioxide emissions have increased over the past six or seven years, in contrast to the last six years of the Conservative Government, when emissions fell. It is sad that this country has not managed to exert the influence that we might have expected over the United States of America on the subject. I hope that the Government may yet be able to do so. I am proud to serve under a Leader of the Opposition who was influential in getting the United States to sign the Rio treaty. More recently, those of us on the Conservative Benches can be proud of the pressure that we, among other groups, brought to bear on the Government on the Housing Bill, to ensure that homes become more energy efficient. That is a very important part of a proper, integrated environmental strategy.
There has been some debate this afternoon about wind farms. My party is certainly not opposed to them, but it is worth noting that offshore wind farms are twice as efficient as onshore wind farms. We must allow local decision making on the siting of wind farms on land. Local communities should have the final say on matters of great significance that will affect them. I am pleased that the electricity in my London home is supplied from offshore wind capacity. I was able to arrange that through my electricity supplier, npower. I commend the company's initiative in offering consumers wind power-generated electricity through the national grid. I hope such initiatives will expand.
Like other hon. Members, I reacted with great concern to the pictures of fridge mountains that we saw in our papers over the past few days. I gather there are pictures of car mountains as well. It is extraordinary that we have yet more European Union regulations coming into force in the United Kingdom. We in all parts of the House can agree with the purpose of those regulations, but we do not have the capacity in place to cope with them. We must make sure that the recycling plants are available in this country before we introduce the regulations, or we will see more fridge mountains, more car mountains, more battery mountains and so on, across the country.
Aviation emissions are a subject of close interest to my constituents, as my constituency is situated close to Luton airport. It is clearly right that we seek international agreement to ensure common practice
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among the world's airlines and to make sure that a country that takes a lead in the matter does not end up losing out. I hope the Government will undertake to ensure that there is broad international agreement.
On the international front, I was astounded to learn from my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) that we have lost some 4.6 million sq km of rainforest in the past 20 years. We know that the rainforest is essential to deal with the carbon dioxide emissions that we continue to pour out. Such an area of rainforest may be hard to visualise but I understand that it is 11 times the size of the United Kingdom.
On environmental matters more directly related to my constituency, fly-tipping continues to be a subject of enormous concern to my constituents in both the rural and the urban areas of my constituency. We often think of fly-tipping as happening only in the countryside, but it happens in towns as well and is a great blight and eyesore which brings down the communities affected by it. I am delighted that my party has said that it will make fly-tipping an arrestable offence. I should like to see the police working alongside local authorities and the Environment Agency to tackle the problem. The odds are so heavily stacked in favour of the fly-tipper that we need all available agencies to do something about the problem. I cannot help reflecting on the fact that the Government see fit to give the police the duty of policing the Hunting Bill, which we have just brought in, yet they do not ask the police to deal with fly-tipping, which is an extremely serious everyday problem faced by many of our constituents throughout the country.
Transport matters are of great concern to my constituency. After some 80 years we have at last had an assurance that the extension of the A505 to the M1 or the Dunstable and Houghton Regis northern bypass will be built. That is a committed project for which I am grateful. I presented a petition on the Floor of the House signed by some 25,000 of my constituents, which gives hon. Members some idea of the strength of feeling on the subject in my constituency.
I am concerned to note that the Government's proposals to build about 43,000 extra houses in my constituency mean that there will be about 10,000 extra houses built in the constituency before this essential bypass is built. I worry that that will turn an extremely serious problem of transport congestion into one of total gridlock. When the bypass is built, I hope that the Government will agree through the Highways Agency to ensure that there is a lorry ban on the A5 as it passes through Dunstable. One of our respected local GPs, Dr. O'Toole. of the Kirby road surgery in Dunstable, recently drew attention to the fact that children in Dunstable suffer considerably higher levels of asthma than do the children whom he sees from the surrounding villages and other areas.
We should not forget that traffic congestion and diesel pollution especially have an adverse effect on people's health, particularly children's health, in built-up urban areas. It is a transport and health priority that we should try to get freight moving along roads that are properly designed for it and not moving through built-up urban areas where it does not need to do so.
In south Bedfordshire we face a threat to the structure of our local democracy in that the Government are intent on building a guided bus system at a cost of about
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£85 million between Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, even though the scheme is bitterly opposed by my constituents. We understand from the Government's projections that the scheme will cost about £85 million, as I have said, and other projections suggest that it could go as high as £106 million.
I am sad that the alternative proposals put forward by Chiltern Rail, that would have led to a light railway with feeder bus services, which could have been produced far more cheaply at a cost of about £35 million, I think, has been withdrawn. It seems to me that Chiltern Rail has been, at the very least, leaned on by the Government to withdraw the scheme.
Even more worrying for my constituents is that we have been told that Luton borough council will have the ability compulsorily to purchase large amounts of land within south Bedfordshire, the area that I represent, to establish a transport scheme that is bitterly opposed by many of my constituents. That is extremely worrying from the point of view of local democracy. I will certainly be opposing it when the public inquiry sits early next year.
The last transport issue that I shall mention relates to the proposed flight path change that Luton airport is requesting. There are understandable reasons for the airport wanting to do this, given that the current flight path is not an easy one to flyit is a slightly complicated S-bend. No doubt the proposed flight path would be slightly safer for the pilots and passengers when using the airport. However, the flight path is scheduled to pass directly over the largest town in my constituency, Leighton Buzzard, where about 38,000 people live. It would be quite easy, however, for the flight path to pass round the town on a slightly larger loop.
I am aware that with any flight path that there will be winners and losers, but surely it is the role of the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority to minimise the environmental impact in terms of flight path noise. That is clearly not possible on the proposed option 3a flight path. I have already raised the matter with the Department; I have had a meeting with the Minister; and I have been to the CAA. Before Christmas, I will be presenting yet a further petition signed by many thousands of my constituents. I want the Government to realise the seriousness of the issue, which they may well need to call in, depending on the CAA's decision.
On local and devolved government affairs, in my constituency the Government propose to double the number of houses, primarily on green belt. We welcome some of those houses; my district council had plans to build 7,000 to 8,000 additional houses that are vitally needed and I yield to no one in my desire to see the housing needs of my constituents met. But the Government's decision to ram such massive amounts of housing into only four areas around London where there are simply not the jobs for the people that such housing will attract is bitterly opposed by my constituents. Some 17,000 of them, led by leading Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors, again signed a petition that I presented in the House under the banner headline "Local homes for local people".
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I ask the Government to think again because everywhere that I travel in the wider south-east I find that local authorities, local councillors and local people say exactly the same thing. There is massive resentment about such Government imposition on matters that are essentially local. It is really quite outrageous that such local matters have to be debated here in the House of Commons, because the decisions have been taken out of the hands of the local authoritiesthe local housing and planning authoritieswhose proper responsibility these functions are. Those authorities have a say only in the final stages when all the major decisions have been taken. That is a serious threat to local democracy.
We ask why the numbers of people voting in local elections go down and down, but if the real power and responsibility to decide such matters is taken out of the hands of local councillors, that will be the result. If local councillors do not make the right decisions and do not provide the local housing that is needed, local people will vote them out and will vote in councillors who will provide the housing that they need. I say to the Government, trust local people to make the right decisions for their area and do not take those powers away.
In that regard, I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has said that we will scrap the wretched regional assemblies that again are siphoning powers upwards and away from the people. One ODPM Minister described the regional assemblies not quite as the plaything of the Deputy Prime Minister, but something to that effect. They were described as having to implement the plans of the Deputy Prime Minister.
It is a source of huge resentment in my area that councillors from outside the area are taking decisions that are massively significant to south Bedfordshire. It is no good for the Government to say, "Oh yes, but there are some Conservative councillors on the regional assembly." Conservatives will sit on any body that is set up by the Government to try to do the best that they can under the structures that have been created. But all Conservatives want to see real local government exercised at the truly local level, and that is what we are committed to. I say again that I am delighted that the East of England regional assembly will be no more under a future Conservative Government.
As I have already said, we would be faced with this tremendous number of extra homes and a severely worsening road system, but rail problems would also become more serious. We already have problems on the Silverlink line from Leighton Buzzard to Euston. I have received increasing numbers of complaints from my constituents about the service, and the greater strain that would be placed on that service with the projected housing for my area does not bear thinking of. The services that that number of people coming into my constituency would require are a cause for concern, and concerns also exist about sewerage, water, access to green space and pollution.
Leighton Buzzard is the largest town in my constituency, and it has been trying to obtain a community hospital for about 20 years. It is one of the largest towns in the UK to have no hospital facility and
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it is much larger than towns in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire that have community hospitals. Last week, I tabled a written question asking whether Leighton Buzzard will get a community hospital as part of the sustainable communities plan. The answer is no; I was given general figures about increased spending on health in the so-called sub-region that the Government have devised, but I was not given a clear commitment. Even on infrastructure, my constituents have nothing to look forward to.
On planning law, my constituents face the difficulties caused by a large number of unauthorised or unofficial Traveller siteswe have between five and seven such sites. The sites are bought by the Travellers concerned, who actually own them. They subdivide the title to the land at a great rate and, before you know it, arable land intended for growing crops or for grazing livestock has become a mini-encampment. Some of those sites have street lights, tarmac roads and curbed pavements. They have sprung up without the knowledge and with the complete opposition of the local authorities concerned.
It is not good enough that the Government have tolerated that situation for so long, and I wonder why they have been so negligent for so long. The problem affects many Labour Members' constituencies, as it affects my constituency. It is impossible to describe the many planning difficulties that arise as a result of those unauthorised Traveller encampments. Large numbers of settled families are removing their children from schools in my constituency. I have visited the teachers at those schools, and it is incredibly difficult for the local education authority or a local village school to cope with a vast, unplanned influx of children. For that reason alone, the Government must ensure that planning law applies to everyone.
Frankly, the current situation discriminates against the settled community. Again, I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, who has worked hard on our policy. The next Conservative Government will have policies, which local authorities will be able to enforce straight away, to stop unauthorised encampments springing up in the first place, and I thank her for that.
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