Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): We have heard a lot today about Christmas traditions, and one Christmas tradition in my household is that we all catch a cold for Christmas. I am pleased to report to the House that I have delivered early on my pledge, so I hope that you will excuse me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I splutter and cough my way through my speech.

It is also our Christmas tradition that at this time of year we remember those less fortunate than ourselves, and I would like to highlight several issues in my constituency. As we all know, the Government have been spending a lot more money. They call it investment—but unfortunately, not all the money is going to the right places. For a substantial number of my constituents it is merely building interference and failure into their daily lives and interfering with their quality of life, as their interaction with big Government bureaucracies brings worry, stress and hardship. Sadly,   that Government failure is happening where Government intervention and action could make a positive contribution and a real difference to people's lives.

Since being elected in May, I have been appalled by the fact that services meant to help the most vulnerable in the community of Reading, East are being run in the most inefficient way. Instead of giving support and a helping hand at the most difficult of times, the Government are providing what is at the very least a barrier to opportunity, and at worst, poverty and heartache.

I have taken up many cases of unemployed people who have applied to Jobcentre Plus for benefits. They are desperate for help when they come to me, because instead of help they have found an impenetrable bureaucracy that does not serve the customer, and seems to be there just to serve itself. Some of my constituents have been underpaid benefits, or have not been paid them at all for months on end. They are not the richest people in my constituency and when they ask for help, they need it quickly. It is often the poorest who are failed the most by big government bureaucracy, which seems not to work.

Immigration and asylum accounts for more than 50 per cent. of my casework and many of those whom I   see are not allowed to work. Some have relied on the
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1782
charity of local organisations to feed and support them. Does the system help? No: it takes months, sometimes years, to get a decision or even to get an intelligent answer from the bureaucrats. One gentleman in my constituency was told by the Home Office in early September that a decision had been made on his application for leave to remain, yet he was not told what that decision was until late November. That left him frustrated and stressed, and he was in almost daily contact with my office. This is not the joined-up and efficient government that we were promised back in 1997; it is bureaucracy and it is having a detrimental impact on people's lives.

However, the problems do not end there. Any independent examination of the Child Support Agency, tax credits and local authorities will demonstrate that the entire system is a giant mess. It is often MPs and voluntary organisations who have to try to pick up the pieces. I am fed up with sitting in my surgeries week in, week out, as people come to me in desperation and at their wits' end, often breaking down in floods of tears. I do not know how other MPs feel, but I find that very difficult. If the bureaucracies were set up and run intelligently, such situations would not arise. My worry is that they are the result of wasting money—of a system that is force-fed money, and which is trying to think how to spend it.

Despite the many problems, I want to take this opportunity to praise some of the public servants in my constituency who are doing fantastic work. Among the many fine officers in Thames Valley police, our local area commander, Dave Murray, stands out. He will shortly be moving on thanks to a promotion, but he has had a huge impact in terms of reducing crime in the communities that I represent. A Reading man through and through, Dave Murray is a fine officer and he will be sorely missed in the town. I also want to pay tribute to Superintendent Dilip Amin, who has been a very positive role model for the community-focused policing that I thought was long forgotten and that we would not see again.

Thames Valley is a well-respected force that has built a good reputation after the last round of mergers from which it was created. It covers three counties and 2,200 square miles, and has some 5,000 officers, who police a population of 2.1 million residents and 6 million visitors per year. I do not, therefore, support a further merger with Hampshire and the Isle of Wight or any other combination. Thames Valley is already a large and strategic force—larger than the 4,000 officers that the   Government report deems necessary. However, the Government's budget settlement is placing enormous pressure on Thames Valley police. I fear that it is designed so that the council tax payer ends up footing more of the bill. Following the huge police precept and council tax rises in recent years, that would be wrong and local people would not stand for it.

I now turn to the services delivered by my two local authorities. Three issues of enormous concern to me are education, housing and transport. My local education authority has consistently failed the children of the borough. Despite the best efforts of parents and teachers, in recent years many Reading schools have
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1783
been on special measures. The latest Ofsted report, published in January of this year, stated:

It continued:

This performance is not "satisfactory" to me; it is an abject failure.

Thankfully, Reading borough brought in an excellent director of education, David Williams. The Ofsted report recognised this:

Yet after only eight months in post and just when he was beginning to make headway, he will shortly be gone. This is nothing short of a disaster for Reading's children. I have had my differences with Mr. Williams but I have never doubted either his ability or his sincerity. Schools in Reading found him to be extremely supportive. With a failing local education system, Reading cannot afford to lose such talented people. My constituents are asking themselves why we are losing such high quality people. Dilip Amin had engineered a responsive local policing service, thus cutting crime. David Williams had set about turning around our appalling local education authority.

Where do we think the problems arose? Which people made it intolerable for those high quality professionals to carry out their work? There are people in Reading who are roadblocks to progress and they need to ask themselves questions before we lose other high quality professional people. With David Williams gone, I do not yet have confidence that the LEA will continue to move forward. Ofsted will need to have another look shortly at how things are developing. The only reason Reading was not a failing LEA was David Williams; now he is going. It will take time to replace him and there is still no school improvement officer in place. Does not this give the dangerous impression to parents that school improvement is a low priority?

The striking thing is that Reading has enormous potential for improvement. One fine example is Highdown school, a specialist maths and technology school. When head teacher Tim Royle arrived eight years ago, the school was massively underperforming. In recent years he has turned the school around through high quality leadership. He is supported by Trevor Keable, his governors and local parents, and the children are now performing strongly. Last year, the   exams were the best ever with a 100 per cent. pass rate at A level, beating the two excellent local grammar schools. The pass rate A* to C at GCSE was 63 per cent; it was around 20 per cent a few years earlier. This shows the potential for improvement in Reading that can be achieved with the right leadership and by removing LEA interference.

The knee-jerk rejection to the new White Paper by local Labour politicians shows what we are up against. The White Paper does not go far enough but it is on the right road to enable schools to turn around. The idea
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1784
that it will disadvantage poor children is absurd; it will do quite the opposite. I strongly recommend that people in Reading, East read the minutes of the Education Select Committee from yesterday, which show where Labour in Reading is going wrong. Wokingham district council, by contrast, is, to quote Oftsed,

and yet

The second area of concern is housing. I have many constituents with concerns about their housing, but the greatest problems have been experienced by the hundreds of council tenants who have been the subject of the North Whitley PFI project. I have been touched by letters from residents in their 70s and 80s who have described being without kitchens and bathrooms for days or even weeks. A few even had holes left in external walls in the middle of last winter.

A good deal of the blame must lie with the contractor, but I am also concerned at the apparent lack of   oversight by Reading borough council who commissioned the contract. Local Labour councillors are whingeing that the contractor, Affinity, did not listen to them. I am not surprised; they have been incredibly ineffective in representing their local ward.

The third and final area of concern is transport. Reading is fortunate to sit at the hub of road and rail links and to be within a short distance of one of the world's major airports at Heathrow. I will not go into detail now as, fortunately, I have a Westminster Hall debate on this subject next month, but I would like to focus on Reading Buses, which remains wholly owned by Reading borough council and receives considerable subsidy to run its services.

The ruling Labour group in Reading likes to trumpet the "social services" element provided by the bus company and has in the past subsidised a number of routes in order to keep them running. It is therefore disappointing to see services cut and changed in several areas to the detriment of elderly and low-income families. At the same time as services have been cut, prices have been massively increased. Since 2001 there has been an approximate doubling of ticket prices. Pensioners retain free travel on the buses, but the value of this is diminished every time a bus route is cut and the network becomes less accessible to the elderly.

I know that time is pressing, so I will cut my remarks short and finish by wishing everybody here a happy Christmas.

5.29 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page