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Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree) (Lab): Before I start my speech, I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), who is retiring. As he and other hon. Members will know, I have had some association with his constituency over a number of years, and I can confirm the enormously high regard in which he is held by people of all political parties.
I turn now to a matter that affects my own parliamentary division of Braintree, and it concerns a road. For a Member who represents a rural or semi-rural area close to a town, roads can be a plus but they can also be a minus. Many Members will have travelled along the M11 out of London towards Stansted or beyond, and many will have travelled along the A12 from London to the east coast. A large part of the area between those two roads is my parliamentary constituency. Joining those roads is another road: the A120.
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I do not wish to exaggerate, but until recently, most of the A120 was little more than an improved country road. It is now right to say, however, that after many years, many deliberations and an extensive public inquiry, the road west of Braintree leading to Stansted is a modern, fast-moving motor road. Indeed, those who travel on it are amazed at how quickly Stansted is left behind and Braintree appears. On reaching Braintreewhich, not many years ago, the old A120 used to go throughthere is a bypass. The cars spin along it, their drivers thinking that they are going to the end of the land, as they travel in such speed and style. They then reach a landmark that has historically been known as Galley's corner, although some people now call it McDonald's corner or the "cholesterol roundabout", because it is surrounded by fast-food outlets, multiplex cinemas, designer fashion shops and every other attribute of modern life. The roundabout, though, was not designed to take such a throughput of traffic, and however quickly someone might leave Stansted and approach Braintree, they will soon hit an enormous tailback.
However, that is not really the point that I want to raise, because the Highways Agency is seeking to resolve that tailback problem by constructing the A120 east of Braintree through to the A12, thus joining the two cardinal routes. Every time we design or construct a road, there will be winners and losers. I went to see the Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) about this matter about 18 months ago, because a rumour was being circulated by one of the political parties in my division that the line of route was already known. These stories always spread like wildfirethere is always a conspiracy involved in anything to do with government. Those of us who have served in public office for a number of years performing various functions will know that the conspiracy theory is invariably not the one that holds water, and that another theory will always be much more apt.
I went to see the Minister, and he showed me on a map that there were about 13 possible routesI did not count themto take this road east of Braintree to join the A12. I was informed that there was no preferred route at that stagethey were all being worked on and consideredso I went away and told my constituents that I understood that either three or six options would be presented to the people of Braintree and the adjacent areas, to ascertain which route they would prefer. Indeed, I believe that that was the policy that was pursued on the western section.
My constituents and I were therefore somewhat surprisedto put it mildlywhen it was announced in February that there was one preferred route. We were being given the Henry Ford option: "You can have any route you like, as long as it's this one." It is right to say that one or two other lines were sketched in on the maps as possible routes, but it is not for us humble members of the public to design roads. That is not our calling. The designers of roads are engineers and surveyors, and it is for them to put before the local people a number of choices about where a road should go.
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The route that has been chosen gives great offence to the historic, tightly knit communities through which, or close to which, it will run. It will leave the roundabout that I have mentioned and sweep across country at elevated level past the villages of Tye Green, Cressing and Lanham Green. The fact that it will be elevated will make a difference, because people will be able to see the wretched thing from their back gardens. Not only that, but they will have the disadvantage of its being illuminated at night, and there will be a constant hum of traffic going through. They will experience a sudden change from living in an historic rural community to living by the side of a motor road.
After that, the road will skirt Silver End, which I have had occasion to mention here before. It is the model village that was built by the Crittall window-making company, and which produced the first Labour Member of Parliament for the county of Essex in 1923. The road will skirt close to the village before cutting across country between the town of Coggeshall and the village of Kelvedon, passing a little hamlet called Half Way, which might not be at the forefront of hon. Members' minds. I called a meeting at Half Way, a hamlet of about 40 residents, and we got a higher turnout than we do at most elections: I think that about 35 attended. They were very reasonable; they did not scream and shout. They discussed the reasons why it was inappropriate for this road to run right past their little hamlet to the next hamlet and the next village along before crashing down into the Blackwater valley.
The Blackwater river is not one of the great rivers of historyit is not the Mississippi or even the Thames. It is a river that runs across Essex and out into the North sea, with a number of tributaries, and it provides a real aspect of old England that is so often now missed and lamented: a river valley with water meadows. We read in the environmental magazines that one area of the countryside that has declined more than any other is the water meadow, yet in the Blackwater valley we have water meadows teeming with extensive wildlife that is native to old Essex. The new road will sweep down the valley, and rather than tunnelling under the river, it will go over the top of it. It will be quite hard to disguise a road bridge of that kind. Eventually, the road will make its way out through other fairly unspoilt countryside to the north of Feering to join the A12.
A resident who lives on the A12a brave man, but he has jolly good double glazing on the front of his propertybought his bungalow many years ago and improved it over the years. He told me that he had bought a little field at the back of his property, and that the road would go across the corner of it. He said that there was also a railway line there. He told me that if the road was built he would no longer be able to sit in his back garden and look at the stars coming out in the clear sky, and that he would have to look instead at a sweeping bridge with traffic roaring across it, right at the bottom of his garden.
It is open to the Highways Agency to go back to their drawing boards and to conduct proper studies of alternative routes for this road. I do not think that they have carried out environmental surveys, or that they have fully assessed the social impact of a road of this kind sweeping through this part of Essex. I am pleading on behalf of my constituents. I want them to make representations to the Highways Agencyas I am doing
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indirectly now, through the Ministerin their own handwriting, rather than ticking boxes on a standard questionnaire. Questionnaires are designed to elicit the answer that the designer of the questionnaire wants. I want to see as many letters as possible going to the Highways Agency describing exactly what the consequences of this road will be in blighting the lives and properties of so many people, and I want the Highways Agency to come back and say that it is going to offer us costed, planned, easy-to-understand options from which we can choose.
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) (Con): In addition to following my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), it is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), and perhaps to precede my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Coming from Southend myself, I once had my eye on both their seats. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst). He may recall that he was the chairman of Southend's Young Socialists when I was the chairman of Southend's Young Conservatives. I wholeheartedly endorse the tribute that he paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East.
As this is likely to be my last speech to the House, I want to refer to one of the principal interests that I have pursued since my election here in 1977, in addition, of course, to my constituency interests. As a student, I had hitchhiked to the Soviet Union, where I saw at first hand its appalling denial of human rights. A few years later, I saw hundreds of demonstrators in support of the Prague spring being shot in Wenceslas square.
The opportunity to do something came shortly after my election here, when Margaret Thatcher appointed me to the British delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. As well as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, I note that in their places are the hon. Members for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) and for West Ham (Mr. Banks), all of whom are on the current delegation. Incidentally, West Ham was the first seat that I fought, and it was also the first seat that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West fought. In addition, you yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have been a valued member of our delegation in the past.
My membership of our delegation enabled me to produce several reports exposing the human rights situation in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When those countries became independent and free, I had the good fortune to be the chairman of the committee responsible for their accession to the Council of Europe. But my principal preoccupation has been as the rapporteur since 1989, first for the Soviet Union and subsequently for the Russian Federation, and at next month's part-session in Strasbourg the Assembly must decide whether my work should cease because Russia has honoured its commitments and has now reached acceptable standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
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I am under considerable pressure from our Russian colleagues to recommend that Russia should no longer be subjected to the humiliation of such detailed scrutiny, or "outside interference" as the ultra-nationalists describe it. I am told that just asas I explained to the House in my Adjournment debate on 10 January 1996I had recommended that Russia should join the Council of Europe with the argument that it would be better both for Russia and for Europe for it to be in than out, so I should now recommend the end of my detailed monitoring of its commitments to encourage President Putin to pursue his reforms against the darker forces that threaten Russia today, and, it is also said, encourage him to attend the Council of Europe's third summit on 16 and 17 May in Warsaw.
I cannot recommend the de-monitoring of Russia by the Council of Europe at the present time, and my latest progress report to the Assembly explains why. Russia has not met its obligations to be a free democracy. It has yet to hold elections that are fair. As the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections demonstrated, Russia does not have a national television broadcasting system that is unbiased and free of state influence and control. Thus I am insisting that at least one mainstream channel that is politically neutral and impartial should be established, which is also the recommendation of the Committee of Ministers.
The independence of the judiciary is another basic obligation of membership of the Council of Europe. I welcome the considerable reforms that introduce the presumption of innocence, juries and magistrate courts, and the requirement of court orders for search and arrest warrants, which was not the case at the time of the Soviet Union. But recent court cases, such as those concerning the physicist, Valentin Danilov and the scientist, Igor Sutyagin, and the current Yukos trial, suggest that Russia does not yet have a rule of law that is firmly entrenched.
With regard to the detailed commitments that Russia made upon accession in 1996, I welcome the considerable reduction in the number of prisoners, the introduction of community service and non-custodial sentences for juveniles, and the undoubted commitment of the Ministry of Justice to improving prison conditions and to constructing new facilities. But needless to say, there are no votes in prison reform, and it will take years for sufficient resources to improve or replace the totally unacceptable conditions that I have seen in Russia's prisons, which were built to serve the tsars.
Other outstanding commitments are the reform of the office of the prosecutor general, whose powers of oversight remain far too wide, and of the Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, which continues to refuse to transfer the running of the Lefotovo detention centre to the Ministry of Justice.
Last year's report by Human Rights Watch entitled "The Wrongs of Passage" shows that Russia's armed forces continue to fail to exercise a duty of care towards their young conscripts, hundreds of whom commit or attempt suicide each year, and who are subjected to degrading and brutal treatment known as dedovshina, or hazing. I am insisting that the Russian Government and the Duma get a grip on that wholly unacceptable situation.
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Freedom of religion is not yet enjoyed throughout the Russian Federation, as I heard when I met Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious organisations whose churches or prayer houses are regularly attacked or burned, with pastors beaten, meetings disrupted, often without any response from local law enforcement agencies. Regrettably, such campaigns are led or encouraged by the Russian Orthodox Church. I want zero tolerance of such harassment and persecution of people seeking to exercise freedom of worship.
Russia continues to interfere in the internal affairs of other member states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, contrary to its commitment to abandon a policy of having a zone of special influence, which it calls its "near abroad". The personnel, arsenal and equipment of the 14th Russian army remains in Transnistria, thus contributing to a divided Moldova. Russia maintains an active presence in Abkhazia in Georgia and encourages separatism by issuing dual passports to its citizens. That is not peacekeeping, but a long-standing policy of divide and rule, which is unacceptable in today's Europe.
Another major commitment remains the signing of the European social charter and the convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, while the European charter for regional and minority languages has yet to be ratified. Above all, Russia has not yet abolished the death penalty, which I view as essential before I can recommend de-monitoring.
I have not referred to the situation in Chechnya because when the Assembly accepted Russia in 1996, it agreed to my amendments providing for a separate monitoring mechanism for Chechnya, which introduced an international dimension into seeking a political solution. Until recently, Lord Judd undertook that onerous task. We continue to make it clear to our Russian colleagues that as long as civilians disappear or are kidnapped and the military act with impunity, without being held to account, we cannot accept the claim that life in Chechnya is returning to normal.
There is a great deal more in my report to the Assembly, which extends to 90 pages, describing the spheres in which Russia falls short of our standards. I accept that what I have said today is more appropriate to a single-subject Adjournment debate, but I have been unlucky in the ballot for several weeks, so I am grateful to the House for listening to what I have had to say today.
Given what I saw on the streets of Leningrad 40 years ago, I am sorry that I cannot say that the Russian people today enjoy the same freedoms and rights as most Europeans. For the sake of the Russian people, I hope that the Council of Europe will continue to hold Russia to account for those standards, as I have tried to do, and I look forward to hearing in the Minister's response that that is the Government's approach, too.
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