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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Nominal Quantities for Pre-packed Products

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 15570/04, Draft Directive laying down rules on nominal quantities for pre-packed products, repealing Council Directives 75/106/EEC and 80/232/EEC, and amending Council Directive 76/211/EEC; and supports the Government's aim of substantial deregulation, so that most products should be free from restrictions as to quantity.—[Gillian Merron.]

Question agreed to.


IsItFair Campaign

8.28 pm

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I wish to present a petition on behalf of—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so as quickly and quietly as possible?

John Penrose: I wish to present a petition on behalf of the Weston-super-Mare senior citizens forum and the Winscombe and district senior citizens forum, of which I have the honour to be president.

The petition declares:

To lie upon the Table.

8.29 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I wish to present a petition of about 50 of my constituents representing the IsItFair council tax protest campaign. The petition declares:
9 Nov 2005 : Column 439

To lie upon the Table.

8.30 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I have a remarkably similar petition signed by 594 residents of my constituency. The petition declares:

To lie upon the Table.

Identity Cards

8.31 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am delighted to present a petition of more than 1,000 signatures that has   been collected from around the country by Mr.   Christopher Gill, Matthew Illsley and other members of the Freedom Association, an organisation of which I am proud to be a supporter. It declares:

To lie upon the Table.

9 Nov 2005 : Column 440

Bruche Police Training Centre

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

8.32 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): After the excitements of today, my hon. Friend the Minister and I come along like sweepers-up after the Lord Mayor's procession. I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the closure of the Bruche police training centre and its effect not only on the people who work there but on those who live in the surrounding area.

The training centre at Bruche has been a feature of Warrington life for a good many years. It provides the residential stage 2 of foundation training for probationary officers. It is a large site that caters for the needs of several police forces and employs, I believe, 60 people directly, with about 55 working for contractors. I say, "I believe", because it has proved extremely difficult to get accurate information from Centrex on such matters. There are also 70 police officers stationed there, as well as about 10 security staff.

Because of the position of the site in the midst of local housing, the prospect of its closing became a matter of concern to staff and to people in the area when it appeared that changes to police training meant that recruits would no longer be sent for residential training at regional centres. However, it has proved extremely difficult in the run-up to the announcement of closure to get accurate information about what Centrex plans to do. I had raised the matter on several occasions, but I   reverted to it with a number of parliamentary questions, which I tabled in July last year because the staff from the centre had approached me, greatly concerned about their future.

Unfortunately, answer came there none from the Home Office. I wrote again in August and, after much to-ing and fro-ing, I received a reply on 18 November. It stated:

That is extraordinary. If the Home Office cannot answer a simple question in more than four months, I worry about the rest of its work. On 26 November that year, I   received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, in which she apologised for the delay and said that the Home Office had lost sight of the questions over the summer months.

The letter raised more questions than it answered, however. It said that the matter had been given detailed consideration over the summer. If that was true, I do not understand why I did not receive an answer to my question in November. The letter was unenlightening in other respects. It said that Centrex had been discussing what should happen to police training with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and other stakeholders. I am never sure what "stakeholder" means. It is one of those words that, like some of Lewis Carroll's verse, means whatever one wants it to mean. The letter mentioned neither the trade unions at the centre nor the staff. They were not mentioned in a parliamentary answer that I received later that month.
9 Nov 2005 : Column 441

I was approached again by the staff, who were concerned that they could not get information about what was happening. I tabled another question to ask who had been involved in the meetings and what options for the future of the centre had been discussed. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be pleased to hear that the Home Office answered that. I suppose that that is a step in the right direction. However, I was not much further enlightened because, again, there was no mention of what was happening or of any negotiations with the staff. That is unacceptable. The staff have families to keep and bills to pay, just like the rest of us.

I know that the Home Office will say that that was the   responsibility of Centrex, but it cannot be shrugged   off in that way because, after all, Centrex is a non-departmental public body which manages public assets and has strong links to the Home Office. If no one at the Home Office asked what steps were being taken to consult and inform staff, they should have done so. They should be reminded that we are in the 21st century with a Labour Government, and it is unacceptable to treat people in that way.

The failure of Centrex to be open about what was happening caused a great deal of consternation in the local area. The centre is set in the middle of a lot of local housing. Rumours circulated about what would happen to it. That allowed some evil-minded people to spread the rumour that it would be turned into an asylum centre. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety quashed that rumour in a letter to me on 13 July this year. However, the anxieties remain and they need to be tackled.

Not only was Centrex less than open about its plans, it sometimes actively misled people. In November last year, it told the Warrington Guardian, my local newspaper, that the centre was "absolutely not" closing in 2006. In the same letter on 13 July, in which my right hon. Friend dealt with the rumour about the asylum centre, she wrote that

A week later, on 21 July, Centrex sent out an e-mail at 6.4 pm—only four minutes after the House had risen for the summer recess—announcing the closure of three training centres, including Bruche.

I find it astonishing that a public body should behave in that way. I can think of no explanation for that other than a desire to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. That is not surprising when Centrex and the Minister—presumably relying in good faith on what it had told her—previously said something entirely different. Centrex also wrote to me on 21 July announcing the closure. In that letter, it responded to a letter that I had sent to it on 26 June. However, it responded to it in a postscript, which I am afraid is typical of the kind of dismissive attitude that my constituents have had to put up with all the way along.

I am sorry to say that that kind of attitude extended even into parts of the Home Office. When I rang the private office of the Minister of State the day after the   announcement, I received what I can only describe as a curt dismissal. I asked to speak to the Minister
9 Nov 2005 : Column 442
and   was told that she was in her constituency. When I   suggested that her staff contact her—she was in Salford, after all, not Timbuktu—I was told that I   should write in. To her credit, the Minister did telephone me, albeit a week later when I was no longer around. However, I have to say that I have never before encountered that sort of behaviour from the private office of a Minister. It is entirely unacceptable for Centrex and the Home Office to behave in this way when we are talking about people's livelihoods and the future of their communities. I hope that this can be prevented from happening again.

I wrote again to the Minister on 26 July—there has been a lot of correspondence on this matter—to ask why I had been told that there was no immediate prospect of the centre closing, when in fact the announcement was made a week later. I also raised my concerns about what I saw as an attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. The answer that I received was very revealing. It said:

It certainly would. However, I give Ministers credit by assuming that, if they sign a letter, they will have checked the facts and that that is what they have been told. We need to know what happened to change matters between 13 and 21 July. Until that is cleared up, we are all left with the impression that Centrex has been, and is continuing to be, less than frank about its plans.

I was also concerned about what was said in that letter about parliamentary scrutiny. It said that the decision to close the centre had been taken at the Centrex board meeting on the morning of 21 July. It went on to say:

But it does not. If the decision was taken in the morning, I can see no reason to wait until just after the House had risen for the recess to announce it. I have asked for the reason, and I was told by the Minister that she was

If the Home Office is "certainly clear" about that, it needs to give me the information as to why, because I   have not had it, and neither have the people I represent.

I received a letter dated 5 September, signed by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), in the absence of the Minister of State. The explanation that I was given was that

Frankly, that is Home Office gobbledegook. A decision cannot be announced before it has been taken, and no one suggests that it can. However, there was an alternative—a third way, if you like. It could have been announced when the House was sitting.

I am equally concerned that that letter shows an unacceptable attitude towards parliamentary scrutiny. It goes on to say:

I beg to differ. When my constituents are losing their jobs, and when decisions are being taken that will affect a whole area, it is not only the right but the duty of their
9 Nov 2005 : Column 443
Member of Parliament to raise the matter in the House. My constituents would expect no less. I am very disappointed that any Minister should think differently. That was a most unfortunate turn of phrase to use.

Because of all this, and because of the way in which Centrex has behaved since the announcement, it is difficult to have faith in what it is doing. I still have staff approaching me who are very demoralised about what is happening, and people who live in the area are deeply concerned. The chief executive of Centrex wrote to me in August to say that he had briefed the staff on what was happening, and that he had set up a programme board. He did not, however, answer any of the points that I put to him about what was happening to the staff or about the future plans for the site. He told me that I would get information about those matters at the appropriate time. I happen to think that the appropriate time to answer queries from a Member of the House is when they are asked, not when some unelected person decides to answer them. That is treating my constituents with a fair amount of contempt, which is unacceptable.

Since then, Centrex has not engaged with the local council's redundancy support service, the job centre or our economic development authority, until yesterday, when it sent an e-mail to the council in response to an e-mail that had been sent weeks earlier, saying that it looked forward to working with Warrington borough council. It is a miracle what getting an Adjournment debate can do, but I would prefer not to have to have one every week to ensure that that process continues.

The sad thing is that we have a good record in Warrington of getting people into jobs following redundancy, but engagement between all the partners involved is needed. If I make a comparison with what happened when Marks and Spencer closed a call centre in my constituency, there was immediate engagement with all the partners in the area, and we had a lot of support from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), who was then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I expect a public body to do no less than that.

I want to turn to the future of the site. As I said, it is surrounded by housing, with only very limited access. When it was transferred to Centrex, I understand that the written-down value was £3 million. It might now be worth much more, depending on the future use of the site. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can tell me what will happen to any windfall profits from that, whether local people will be able to benefit in any way, and whether any of that will be used to help to find jobs for the staff involved.

There is a further problem, however. As well as the rumours that have circulated about this site, there is a real concern about over-development in the area, which I believe is well founded. The adjoining roads already have a lot of traffic problems. For any future development at the site, we need proper community engagement. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in one of the numerous letters that we exchanged, the date of which now escapes me, that she was

in any future planning application. I would like to see that keenness translated into reality, however. Although I know from the parliamentary answer of 17 October that Home Office officials and Centrex have had
9 Nov 2005 : Column 444
discussions about the future of the site, there has been no contact with the local planning department, let alone with people in the community.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will accept that this matter has so far been very badly handled. It has not increased confidence, either in the staff or the community, about what Centrex will do in the future. We now need to put that right. I hope that he can assure me that he will ensure that Centrex now engages with all local partners in order to make sure that the proper procedures are in place to find jobs for people who are made redundant at that site. Far from dismissing concerns raised with it, I hope that it will now engage with the local community and have a proper discussion on what should happen there in future, so that whatever is done with the site, it can be for the benefit of the local community and not to their detriment. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

8.49 pm

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