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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone in the House all the best for Christmas and an exceptional new year as well. That applies to the Doorkeepers, the police, security officers and all the other staff who are greatly needed in the House. We should express our thanks to them and wish them all the best.
I send my best wishes to the fifth medical unit, which is based in Preston and has been sent to Iraq, and to the Territorial Army unit from Chorley, which is backing it up. I wish them all the best during these troubled times. As a medical unit in a very difficult situation, it will have to put up with a lot. The staff will want to ensure that they deliver the best medical treatment not just for our own forces, but for the Iraqi people.
It is important that hon. Members are allowed to raise all sorts of matters in this House, and I can think of nothing more important than the naming and amalgamation of regiments. A consensus about a new name used to exist between the King's Own Scottish Borderers, the King's Regiment (Manchester and
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Liverpool) and, most famous of them all, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. Three colonels, backed by MPs from Liverpool, Manchester and Lancashire, signed a letter in support of adopting the name the Royal Lancashire Regiment. That would have been a great name to go forward with. It is a disgrace that that consensus was somehow destroyed when it arrived on the Army Board's desk.
The board ignored the wishes expressed by Members of Parliament and the regiments, and the result was the convoluted name the King's Lancashire Border Regiment. A proud county like Lancashire should have its own regiment, and not have to bend the knee to Cumbria. After amalgamation, 90 per cent. of the new regiment's members will come from the county palatine of Lancashire but, somehow, the tail represented by the remaining 10 per cent. has managed to wag the dog. That is unacceptable. I hope that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who is sitting on the Front Bench, will make the Secretary of State for Defence aware of the disgraceful new name and ensure that there is a chance to debate it. I hope that we can change the name to reflect the consensus that had been reached, and that we can do so quite quickly.
Another matter very important to the good people of Lancashire is textiles. The procurement of Army uniforms is very important for the textile industry. In time of need, our armed forces were well served by the textiles produced in Lancashire's factories, but we now discover that a bridal wear company in China has tendered to provide battledress. That is unacceptable. How can a company specialising in wedding dresses produce battledress? The sample produced for tender purposes did not come from the factory in China, but from somewhere else. The battledress order has been given to a state-owned factory in China, which will produce specialist camouflage for our armed forces, and that is unacceptable.
People may say that anybody can make camouflage clothing, but that is not true. The print involved is very specialised, as is the chemical treatment given to the material to ensure that personnel are better protected at night. They cannot be seen through night-vision goggles, as the chemical treatment prevents heat being released, and good camouflage helps soldiers to blend in with their surroundings. We are putting all that at risk by giving the battledress order to a state-owned factory in China. That is not on. Why should a subsidised factory in China be given such a contract? We would not supply China's army, because of that country's human rights record, but somehow we find it acceptable for China to supply uniforms for our armed forces. That is not good. The matter needs to be examined immediately and the contract brought back to the UK. Every other European country ensures that uniforms for their armed forces are provided by domestic manufacturers. I hope that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will take that on board, as I know that he also has a constituency interest in this matter.
While on the subject of procurement, I must say that I am delighted by the tranche 2 Typhoon contract, which could not have come at a better time for the north-west. Many companies, from Scotland to Cornwall, will benefit, and it is very important that the contract should
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go ahead. As well as securing jobs in the north-west, it will also ensure that specialist skills will be retained. It will show that Britain remains at the cutting edge of aerospace technology.
The aerospace industry is especially important, and the time has come for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make sure that it is a strategic investment for the future. We must not let it disappear as we let the textile industry disappear. I hope that the jobs that we have secured will in turn attract the future investment needed to ensure that we do not fall behind in the aerospace technology race. Of course, there is technology transfer from military to civil producers and we must keep that. We must not lose jobs throughout the country, whether it be from BAE Systems, Bombardier in Northern Ireland or Rolls-Royce in Derby. We have to protect jobs because they mean so much to this country.
Ministers must be accountable to the House. It is only right that Members should expect them to come to the House to address the issues of the north-west. People rightly ask why we still have Grand Committees for Wales and for Scotland. We have them because they allow MPs to bring Ministers before them to address them on matters of importance to Scotland and Wales. Surely, what is good for Scotland and Wales should be good for the north-west and other regions. We ought to extend Grand Committees to all the regions, allowing us to ask Ministers to explain why they are or are not investing in our regions. The time has come to give more power to Back Benchers to scrutinise Ministers on behalf of their regions and to find out why investment has gone where it has.
The M6 is of obvious importance to me. It is the major link from Scotland to the south. At Lancashire, though, there are new plans to create four lanes from Birmingham to Warrington. From Warrington, going north to south Preston, however, there will be three lanes. We will end up with a bottleneck second to none. It will remind us of the bad old days in Birmingham. If we are making the motorway four lanes, why on earth not do that from Preston, where several motorways join, right down to Birmingham? That would ensure that we do not have a bottleneck.
Railways are also important. I hope that the Strategic Rail Authority will recognise that Euxton station will be funded by the developer. It is a former royal ordnance site of 900 acres. Some 2,500 new houses will go on to the site and there will be new businesses and 10,000 jobs. One would have thought that to make all that sustainable, which it is meant to be, a new railway station would have been built. The money is there, but the SRA has said that it might put 35 minutes on a train journey to Buxton. The authority has come up with every reason why the station cannot go ahead. The time has come to stop messing about. Let us get on with the job. Let us spend the money the developer has put in. Let us ensure that the people who will use Euxtonwhere there is plenty of park and ride, whether they are going into Manchester or Prestonwill benefit from the station. In addition, the station at Coppull was closed under Beeching, but there is huge demand for it to reopen to give the west coast main line another station, thereby increasing accessibility.
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I am tryingwe all areto fit in everything today. Farmers are important, but dairy farmers in Lancashire have suffered badly because of supermarkets. For beef cattle, poultry, pigs or whatever, supermarkets are screwing down the price all the time. That is not sustainable for farming in the United Kingdom, and it certainly is not sustainable for farmers in Lancashire. I feel sorry for the dairy and poultry industries, which are having the screws put on them by supermarkets. The time has come for supermarkets to recognise that farming has to make a profit and has to be sustainable. Otherwise, we cannot expect the quality that we put into farming, which ensures welfare rights for animals that other countries do not provide. If we are not careful, farming will become another forgotten industry. I plead with the Minister to ensure that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs meets the supermarkets to ensure fair farm-gate prices for the benefit of all and for the future.
The first issue dates back to 14 November, although the history goes back somewhat further. It arises from the Lyons review that considered where Government offices should be located. Its direct impact on my constituency began on 14 November with a visit from the chief executive of the Benefits Agency to the disability benefits centre there. He notified the staff of the intention to close the centre in Sutton during 2005 and to relocate its work and, if they so wished, its staff to Blackpool. In all, the decision will affect approximately 350 staff, many of whom are my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).
The disability benefits centre covers most of the south-east of Englandmost of south London, and counties such Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and also the Isle of Wight. The services for which it is responsible are not only the processing of benefit applications and the bureaucratic processes involved in administering paymentsit also provides outreach and home visiting services. How on earth will those services be provided from Blackpool? One of the concerns of many of my constituents who work in the centre is that the change in service delivery will result in a reduction in the quality of service that many disabled people receive. That message was put to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington when we met about 70 staff at a meeting in their canteen last Friday. They put forcefully their concerns about the reduction in service and their understandable anxieties about their own futures.
The meeting led me and my hon. Friend to table early-day motion 438, which is on the Order Paper today. The staff feel that the selection of the Sutton disability benefits centre has been arbitrary. Where is the business case that justifies the closure? Where is the rationale behind the decision? I am led to believe that the centre is among the best performers on the performance measurements that the Department uses. So how will delivery of the service be maintained or, indeed, improved?
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For the 350 staff affected by the decision, especially part-time and low-grade staff, there is the added uncertainty about finding another job in the civil service in the Greater London area when the Government are looking to export more jobs out of the area. There appears to be a lack of co-ordination between Departments about how the downsizing in London is to be worked through.
I was told that there was a possibility of finding jobs in Croydon, which is very near to my constituencyfor example, at the Home Office. On further inquiry, it turns out that the Home Office is also shedding jobs, and doing so in Croydon. So people are competing for the finite number of jobs that are opening up in London. In my part of London about 830 people from Jobcentre Plus schemes, the disability benefits centre and so on are looking for redeployment opportunities.
The Lyons report is the driver behind all this, but no evidence has been presented to staff or Members of Parliament to justify the proposal to close the centre. I hope that, before the 90-day consultation is concluded, the Department for Work and Pensions will publish the business case so that we can see whether what is proposed stacks up. We can then discharge our responsibility as Members of Parliament to scrutinise the Government, hold them to account and ensure that they deliver value to the taxpayer and a better service for disabled people.
I also have concerns about the continuing programme of post office closures affecting not only my constituency but those of many hon. Members. Just yesterday, I received a letter from the Post Office Ltd confirming the intention that it had announced earlier this year to close post offices in Cheam and Belmont in my constituency. That is bad news for my constituency and for the villages of Cheam and Belmont. It is bad news that results from a bad decision-making process. The process is fundamentally flawed.
The Post Office's so-called network reinvention programme is a euphemism for closures. It poses as a strategic assessment of the need for comprehensive postal services in a particular community. However, when we look more closely at what the Government and the Post Office are doing, it is clear that they are taking the path of least resistance. They call for volunteers at the beginning of the process and they dangle a juicy carrot to encourage those volunteers to come forward. As much as £60,000 is on offer to postmasters to give up their licences or franchises and go out of business. The process is driven by postmaster preference and, of course, once postmasters have volunteered to be part of the consultation exercise they have to sign a contract to say that if Post Office Ltd decides to proceed with closuredespite what might be overwhelming evidence against closurethey will close. Postmasters have no choice at that stage in the process.
In September, when the Post Office began the consultation in my constituency on its area plan, we had 13 sub-post offices. The Post Office proposed to close six of them. The consultation closed on 20 October and it took the Post Office just two weeks to come to the view that it would be okay to go ahead with the closure of three of those post officesAngel Hill, Church Hill road and Oldfields roadthus punching a hole in the local suburban network in my constituency. Those closures will make it more difficult for the elderly, the disabled
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and many local businesses to gain access to postal services. The consideration of the representationssubmitted by Postwatch, the council and many otherswas clearly limited and it fuels the impression among my constituents that the whole process was a sham. It is not genuine consultation and will not result in the overturning of any decisions. They have already been made.
Why should my constituents bother getting involved in campaigns to try to persuade the Post Office? Thousands signed petitions and hundreds wrote letters, but the news this week has come as a further blow to the traders and residents in Belmont and Cheam villages. Services will be withdrawn and it will be more difficult to gain access to pensions, benefits and all the other services post offices provide. I raise the issue because of my constituents' frustration. They thought that they had embarked on a genuine process of dialogue and consultation with the Post Office, but the reality has become clear as they learn, days before Christmas, that by the end of January most of their postal services will be gone.
My final point is also about consultation, and again I fear that it is a sham. It concerns the provision of sheltered housing in my constituency, especially that provided by Croydon Churches housing association through the schemes Distin court, Grace court, Hepworth court and Knight house. Last year, the housing association embarked on a best value review of its sheltered housing schemes. It found, not surprisingly, an overwhelming desire among tenants to retain resident wardens in their schemes. Tenants felt that resident wardens provided peace of mind, security and comfort. However, events have moved on and an employment tribunal in the London borough of Harrow concluded that, in a scheme provided by that local authority, the period of time during which a resident warden was required to remain on site on call was working time for the purposes of the working time regulations.
The Harrow judgment has been used as a pretext for withdrawing resident wardens and introducing non-resident wardens. The legal position is not clear and the interpretation of the working time directive by other employment tribunals has led to completely different answers. However, Croydon Churches housing association has prayed in aid that particular, nonbinding decision by an employment tribunal to railroad residents into believing that they should accept a lesser service, despite the fact that two or three years ago they were promised that the service would be maintained as it is today. I ask the Minister for his assistance in seeking support from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in finding ways to ensure that housing associations embark on a serious dialogue with their tenants. We must, of course, comply with the working time directive, but it should not be used as an excuse to reduce the quality of service and the peace of mind that a resident warden service provides.
I end with this point. There is concern that the service to be introduced from April 2005 will result in people receiving a warden service for fewer than 15 hours a week. Under the concessionary television licence scheme, those people pay only £5 for a licence because
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they have resident wardens. As they will lose their resident warden, they may lose their TV licence concession, so not only will they lose the quality of life benefits and the peace of mind provided by the service, they will also end up paying more.
I ask the Deputy Leader of the House for assistance in pursuing that matter with Croydon Churches housing association, to persuade it to reopen consultations and to have a serious dialogue with the tenants to find a way through that enables them to retain residential wardens for the quality of service that that gives them.
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