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Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab):
This is my last opportunity to address this Parliament. I am proud to represent both rural and urban communities and I must say that I see no great distinction as I move from
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one to the other. There are different flavours and different policy aspects and it is important that policy be rural-proofed, but I am pleased that on so many of the issues that I have raised on behalf of my constituents there is consistency of view.
People in the rural and urban communities of my constituency were pleased that I lobbied successfully for a new hospital in Swindon, which has modern facilities and more beds than the old one, and is able to treat many more patients. Next month, we will see the opening of our treatment centre, which can accommodate a further 128 beds and five operating theatres, so we can hope for even more improvement in the town's health services.
I am also pleased to have lobbied successfully to get money into our schools, including the replacement of the wartime huts in which our pupils previously had to learn their lessons; instead, they are now in modern accommodation. I have also been successful in lobbying the Government on some of the crime and antisocial behaviour issues that my constituents have raised with me. What has happened in Wiltshire is a good story. It is now the safest county in the country, and I pay tribute to the work of our police force. We have had a number of community support officers because of Government investment, and street wardens have made an enormous difference to the town as well.
All those people working together have been able to tackle crime. From April to December last year, we saw crime overall drop by more than 5 per cent. and a 1 per cent. increase in the detection rate. Robberies are down by about 13 per cent.burglaries similarlyand violent crime has been reduced by 2 per cent. That is a comfort to my constituents. Although the perception is often that crime is still increasing, the reality is the other way round. Some of our legislation on antisocial behaviour is incredibly important in getting across the message that, if the community works together, we can tackle crime and make us all feel safer.
I have had to pursue in Parliament antisocial behaviour issues associated with Travellers. I am pleased that the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 includes legislation to deal with those issues and that additional stop notices have been introduced this month. Central Swindon has a problem with prostitution, and again, antisocial behaviour orders have given the local community and the local authority, with the police, the power to improve neighbourhoods.
On general antisocial behaviour issues, I am pleased that, in the past couple of weeks, an interim antisocial behaviour order on a youth in Freshbook in my constituency has been confirmed as a two-year order. It was great to see local residents coming out to talk to the local newspaper and saying, "The interim order has made an enormous difference to our lives." Local publicans are saying that people can walk out without fear of intimidation and that they can bring back a sense of community. That makes a real difference to the quality of people's lives across the boardyoung and oldand I congratulate the Government on responding to pressure from Back Benchers to introduce that legislation.
Our understanding of the community contrasts strongly with some Conservatives' activities, certainly on the ground in Swindon, where the local council has
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recently produced a budget in which there are massive cuts to our voluntary sector. Those involved say that they support the voluntary sector, yet they withdraw grants of £50,000 to advice points, saying, "Oh, there is a duplication of provision," when there are massive waiting lists for advice. Those advice points serve the most disadvantaged people in our community and people absolutely depend on them to deal with financial and housing problems. I suspect that, if those places really do close down, it will end up costing the council more in the long run. So there is a contrast between what we have done and how we have responded to communities and what we have seen from the Conservatives.
As this is my last chance to comment on some issues, I particularly want to look at some of the ways in which we work in the House, because a lot of what we do we do inefficiently. Although I appreciate and support all the work of the Modernisation Committee, much more needs to be done if we are to make our democracy more effective, to get the public to relate better to Parliament, to reduce the cost of Parliament and to improve MPs' lives, which is particularly important because, if we improve the job of being an MP, we can get more of the very best people in the country to become MPs. That is in itself important for democracy.
I know that people straightaway talk about the hours of the House, which are important. There is a huge danger, because it is always easy to vote for more hours of debating time, but hard to ask for them to be reduced so that we can spend time more efficiently. However, we clearly could do that.
There have been more than 1,200 Divisions during this Parliament, but we could have the predicted the results of virtually all of them before they were held. [Interruption.] Yes, all of them, except for a few. However, most of us have been here to vote in those Divisions. Anyone who has not taken part in a debate has had to stop what they have been doingperhaps rudely having to say goodbye to constituents whom they have been seeingto traipse over here and go through the Lobby. Some people might say that we are sent here to vote, but we could vote electronically. As happens in some councils, we could tell Mr. Speaker before a debate whether we wanted to abstain or vote against our party line. We could have a named vote, if that were needed.
I calculate that each of us wastes an average of 15 minutes during each Division. An average 436 Members have voted in each of those 1,200 Divisions, so an average of three weeks of work time is wasted for each Division. So far, this Parliament has wasted 70 years of work time voting. If Ministers and Members had voted efficiently, we could have spent that time on our constituents, or even with our families. We all say that families are important, so we could improve Westminster and make life more sensible. We have each wasted an average of eight weeks of time during Divisions that we could have spent better.
I support the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about Prime Minister's Question Time. It is not a useful addition to our democracy. It is no wonder that seeing that sparring match turns many young people off, so I would like that to be addressed too.
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It is daft that we are not allowed to sit and work in the Chamber while other people are speaking. The idea that Members cannot do a bit of work or read while listening to a debate is wrong. We all have to do that during our lives because we all have too much to do, so the problem should be addressed.
We still have not done anything significant on child care. We have more bars than I have cared to find out during my time here, and we have restaurants, a hairdressers and a gym. Yes, there are about 10,000 people working in Westminster, so why not have those facilities; but should we not address the question of nurseries, too?
During debates on modernisation, I have always been identified as the breastfeeding MP because I have rightly promoted breastfeeding. It is good for mums and good for babies. I thank Mr. Speaker for providing facilities for breastfeeding mums, but there is no reason why we should not be more positive about breastfeeding. One million babies throughout the world die every year because of low breastfeeding rates, so we should do more to promote it. It is ludicrous that members of the public cannot sit in the Gallery behind that screen and breastfeed. What problem would it cause?
It was sad for democracy that a decision was made to ban breastfeeding from the Committees of the House. Every single professional organisation wrote in to say that breastfeeding should be allowed and the majority of Members made it clear that they supported it by signing early-day motions. If all those people support breastfeeding, why not go ahead and allow it?
There seems to be a sensitivity to the effect that if we change things in the House, it will somehow fall apart and destroy itself. We should be more willing to experiment and relax. We are too defensive. If we cannot properly debate and decide things in the mother of Parliaments on the basis of professional advice and what most people want, it is a sad day for democracy. Mr. Speaker himself said to me, "Julia, you should just have gone ahead and done it. You shouldn't have asked." That is crazyI do not want to put the staff of the Serjeant at Arms in an embarrassing position. We should be able to listen to professional organisations and do what is right. I remember Tony Benn saying to me, "Julia, the only way to get a crèche in this place is to go round, get nice big A4 posters, shove them on the front of a bar and turn it into a nursery. That's the only way you're going to get it done." I look to hon. Members in the next Parliament to do better and achieve what we should be able to do: talk about such matters and vote on them.
I have been pleased to represent South Swindon, which is a fine place in which to live. All hon. Members are invited to an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall in the parliamentary week starting 4 April at which Swindon Dance will exhibit its fantastic work. I am grateful to all my constituents, who have thanked me and pointed out how much we have been able to achieve by working with activists in many organisations throughout the town. I am pleased to have done that work, and my constituents have noticed the difference between a hard-working Labour MP and an inactive Tory MP who did nothing for the town. I thank activists and volunteers in the Labour party and other groups,
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and I also thank my staff. Democracy is wonderful, but it needs to improve in this country. I am pleased to have played my part in itand you never know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in future, I may be back.
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