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Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. It will not surprise Members that I shall mention Crossrail, for which I have been campaigning for many years.
I was disappointed at the lack of local co-operation on that campaign, but I am glad to say that that has now been reversed. I am delighted that the hybrid Bill on Crossrail has been published and even more pleased that it will be subject to a carry-over process so that whenever the election comespossibly in May, who knows?the measure will not be lost. As Members who have been in this place for longer than me will know, the Bill was lost once before.
The announcement about Crossrail was both good news and bad news for my constituency. The bad news was that the western terminus is still proposed to be MaidenheadMaidenhead!not Reading; but the good news was the announcement that there would be consultation on safeguarding the route to Reading from Maidenhead, which we hope will prohibit development that might prevent the extension of the route to Reading. The cross-party group of Reading political candidates learned of that when they accompanied me to a meeting with Crossrail in December 2004. I always like to work cross-party when I can, and it is surprisingly often possible to do so.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) referred to the cross-party work that he has been doing. I am pleased that, since 1997, I have worked with him on the all-party Japan group, and I hope that that work has been productive for both. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) also referred to cross-party working, and I feel that our constituents respect cross-party working where it is possible. It goes a
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long way to combat the widely held cynicism felt among people who perhaps only see Prime Minister's questions and nothing else of what happens in the House.
Mr. Viggers: I should like to take this opportunity to say that the hon. Lady's speech in the House on the subject of the Emperor of Japan's visit was exceptionally valuable and well worth while, and I congratulate her again on it.
I want to raise quickly in the short time that I have left a couple of issues that have emerged recently in my constituency. It is painful to say it, but after the 2004 local and European elections, there was some concern about the possibility that large numbers of postal votes were not all done correctly. That is certainly a concern that I raised in respect of Redlands ward of my constituency, but we in Reading are not alone in having that experience. A police investigation has been carried out. An internal audit by Reading borough council has also considered the matter, and both investigations have uncovered serious irregularities.
The findings of the internal audit investigation were given to Thames Valley police, who carried out their own investigation, the outcome of which was a determination that voting fraud had been widespread in Redlands ward, where people had voted either using the identities of people who had moved away, or had invented the identities of people who simply did not exist. It has not been possible for the police to find evidence against any individual, but the fact remains that we are left in a situation that will not inspire confidence in any future election.
I understand that a petition to rerun an election must be presented within 21 days, so there is no way for the courts to become involved in the matter. The local Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties have called for the election in Redlands ward to be run again, and today's Evening Postthe local paper in Readinghas as its headline, "Resign in the Name of Democracy". In the spirit of cross-party working in most unfortunate circumstances, I must agree with all three and say that the three councillors elected last June in Redlands ward should resign and let us run the election again.
It is disappointing that the chairman of Reading Labour party, Stuart Singleton-White, has said that he does not think that there is a case for re-running the election because of the majority involved and the fact that the number of votes was so great. He does not feel that the outcome would be influenced thereby. I am sorry, but if one ballot paper is fraudulent, the election should be run again. I hope that the three councillors will listen to reason in their interests, in all our interests and in the interests of democracy, because as the saying goes, "You can't be a little bit pregnant"there is either fraud or there is not.
It has been determined that there was fraud, so the people of Redlands ward in the heart of my constituency have the right to believe that, when they cast their votes, the councillors that they elector, indeed, the Member of Parliament whom they will elect in due coursehave been elected freely and fairly. I have been part of election teams in six different elections, mostly in the former
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Soviet Union, and I take that responsibility very seriously. We are always very frank in the reports that we make following our observations. How can I return to my constituency and say, "Oh well, of course, we wagged our fingers in Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia, but it is okay in Reading."? It is not okay. I am sorry that both Reading borough council and Reading Labour party are not yet with us on that, but I think that they will be; I think that they will see sense.
I wish to raise another slightly painful issue. A recent libel case has involved two hon. Membersnot meon opposite sides of the House: my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who is not in his place. As that action was at least in part based on a letter that I wrote to a constituent who had questions for me, I feel that I must, painful though it is, mention the matter today.
I will not regale the House with the details of everything in the letter and everything that has been said because most of them, in any case, are in the public domain. However, I must say that I spoke the truth and wrote the truth in the letter. I hold no brief for the hon. Member for Woodspring, but what he has said publicly has been the truth. I hope that the matter can be set straight.
I will not stand by and see untruths perpetrated. I will fight against corruption and bullying wherever I see them. I am quite sure that my successor in Reading, EastI wish him well, whoever he might bewill have that same battle to fight. I hope that he succeeds. I hope that he will not tolerate bullying. I hope that more people will not have to be the victims of it in the way in which too many have been. I hope that no one in the future will tolerate that corruptionI am sorry to have to use that word, but it is the word that must be usedand that it will not be allowed to continue.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): This has certainly been a valedictory debate, in more ways than one. We are closing this particular part of the parliamentary year for the Easter recess, and as we have heard time and again, many hon. Members have been taking the opportunity to make what will almost certainly be their final contributions in the House if, as we expect, a general election is called shortly after our return.
Once again, the Deputy Leader of the House and I face the unenviable task of trying to summarise many speeches in a relatively short time. I believe that 19 speeches have been made during the debate: 10 by Labour Members, seven by Conservative Members and two by Liberal Democrats. I cannot but observe that the two Liberal Democrats who contributed to the debate are both retiring. I suppose that we must all draw our own conclusions about where their colleagues are at the moment, but they are certainly not in the House of Commons earning their money.
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In preparation for these debates, I always seek inspiration from the news of the day, or at least any other electronic communications that come my way. Hon. Members can imagine my chagrin when, as I checked my e-mails before coming into the Chamber for the start of the debate, I found that a single e-mail had arrived. I do not often get spam, so I fear that someone is trying to tell me something. The e-mail was from an organisation called Skills Train and had as its subject, "Train for a new career today". I am not sure what the organisation has in mind, although it says that any one of a wide variety of career paths could be mine. However, if the good electors of New Forest, East do what I want them to do, I hope that I will not have to take up that offer for at least a few years to come.
The custom at such times has been to pay tribute to colleagues who are retiring, and I know that the Deputy Leader of the House intends to do that to at least some such Labour Members. I know that more than a dozen of my colleagues will be stepping down at the election, so I would like to say a brief word about a few who have especially touched my life during the course of a political career that went on for a considerable time before I was fortunate enough to be elected.
Top of the list must be my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe), who brought more than a dash of glamour to the Conservative Benches during her distinguished career. I include her on the list because she has never been known to be stumped by a constituency case. I have always borne in mind the example she gave me of a sad lady who visited her. The lady was quivering and extremely nervous and agitated as she explained that she was constantly being zapped by rays coming from the men of Mars via the medium of her television screen. For a brief moment, my hon. Friend was stumped, but inspiration struck, and she said to that poor lady, "This is quite simple to deal with. Every time you watch television, put on a pair of rubber boots, which will prevent the rays from being earthed and the problem will go away." The lady never returned to see my hon. Friend, but whether that was because the prescription worked, or because her bluff had been called, or because it was an episode of "Candid Camera" that was never shown, I do not know. However, if I remember my hon. Friend for nothing elseand I shall remember her for a great deal moreI shall certainly always keep her wise ability to deal with a constituency case diplomatically and effectively in the forefront of my mind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) made a significant contribution to today's debate. For three decades or more, he has fought the battle for British sovereignty both inside and outside the House. His campaign against the European Union's assumption of powers that ought to remain in the grasp of our country, Parliament and electorate is unparalleled. It is a source of shame to me as a Conservative that for a brief period the Whip was withdrawn from him for continuing to say on that vital issue what he had said all his political career. I can assure him, although I am sure that he does not need reassurance, that such a thing would never happen in today's Conservative party.
Right to the end of his political career, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) has assiduously participated in Question
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Time after Question Time, and has shown throughout that courtesy and gentility are alive and well in the House of Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) is also retiring. The House should be aware that he did an enormous amount of cross-party work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to bring the benefits of training in democratic techniques to the new democracies that were formerly part of the Soviet and eastern European bloc. They have benefited from his guidance and advice. When I was a recalcitrant official at Conservative central office, I benefited from the wise and kind advice that he gave me as deputy party chairman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) will probably not remember this, but when he was chairman of the Young Conservatives he took the time in the midst of a busy party conference in Blackpool to give encouragement to a young state school boymyselfwho was attending his first ever national Conservative conference, and to give advice about how to conduct oneself at such events. I am sure that many of us have had similar experienceswe know how much it means at the outset of our political careers to receive advice from people whose own political careers are well advanced, and we appreciate their taking the time and trouble to do so. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who had a distinguished front-line career in the Royal Air Force, has been committed to the defence of the United Kingdom for decades. I have found his career and principled adherence to the promotion of this country's defence inspirational over the years.
Before I come to the contributions to our debate, I should like to make one more point. We have all, not least myself, spent a great deal of time talking about Members who are leaving the Commons, but we should bear in mind the situation of the young hopefuls in every party who, even as we speak, are gearing up to try to enter the House of Commons for the first time. Who can forget the ordeal of the selection process? Who can forget the task of forging a campaign team from a variety of volunteer activists? [Interruption.] Hon. Members say that they wish that they could forget, but I am sure that it is burned indelibly on their souls, just as it is on mine. Who can forget what it feels like stepping into the unknown for the first time on polling day? Like other hon. Members, I have personal friends standing in seats from Bournemouth and Brighton to Harlow and Worcester, from Eastleigh and Romsey to the Forest of Dean, from Weston-super-Mare to Mid-Dorset and North Poole and many, many more. I wish them well in the ordeal that they face, as I am sure hon. Members in other parties wish their friends, whom no doubt they are encouraging, as I would wish to encourage mine.
Once again, this end-of-term debate shows the value of the single Member constituency. Who can doubt for a second that the speeches that we have heard today showing the depth of knowledge, commitment and understanding about local issues are a direct result of the way in which the individual Member of Parliament is allocated an individual geographical area and a particular collection of citizens of the United Kingdom to represent?
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I begin by mentioning the first speaker, the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), whose contribution showed his intense commitment to the manufacturing and aerospace industries as they are represented in his constituency. I would expect nothing less from a former head of policy for a major trade union and a former member of the TUC general council, as I know he is. He clearly has a tremendous commitment to Airbus and to his constituency work force, but I would like to pay tribute to him for something else. He was the first speaker in the debate, and he remained in the Chamber throughout the entire debate till the very end, listening to every other contribution. I take my hat off, metaphorically speaking, to him for doing that.
Then my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East spoke in detail about devolution and said that now that it has been tried for a considerable time, people should be given a chance to have a say once again, but this time with the experience and ability to judge whether they consider it has worked or not. I cannot think of any reason to oppose such a suggestion. He spoke also about asylum seekers who abuse the system by deliberately destroying their papers after entry. He referred, as I would have expected, to the EU and to the Iraq war, and he said that many young people are switching off politics. That theme recurred in many other contributions.
No one could fail to be moved by the contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who spoke in great detail about a case on which he had been working for 18 years. The fact that he chose to use his last contribution in the House to bring what comfort he could to the family whom he represented so assiduously shows a great nobility of spirit. I am sure that that family will treasure the words that he had to say about their case.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is an extremely assiduous parliamentarian. He once again returned to the Steven Roberts casethe terrible case of the soldier who told his wife before his death occurred that he had been forced to give up body armour, and then indeed lost his life in Iraq as a result. I add my own tribute to the extremely brave campaign that his widow, Samantha Roberts, has been waging to get justice for his memory.
I am not entirely sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman on his dislike of jousting in the Commons Chamber. It is a fact that if we were to remove from the parliamentary process the adversarial system, and substitute for it a system where politicians of all parties were effectively in each other's pockets, democracy as a whole would be the loser. The way in which corruption is dealt with in a democratic system is for people who err to know that if they err, their political opponents will be on to it like a shot. Woe betide us if we ever get to a situation where all politicians are chums not just personally, as many of us are across the divide of the House, but politically. I have had dealings with people who live in societies that are run by constant coalitions. They tell me that they can never really have confidence in going to a member of the opposition in order to criticise the Government because they can never be sure that, the next day, that member of the opposition will not be in alliance with that Government. Therefore they will always pull their punches. In a democracy, we do not want politicians to pull their punches.
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