Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I can update my hon. Friend a little on the issue that he is talking about, which was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). This morning, I spent 45 minutes with the head of road policing from the Association of Chief Police Officers, who is seized of the problem. He assured me that, within the next year to 18 months or so, he will use his best endeavours to ensure that some remedies to the problem are on the statute book. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) for giving the problem further publicity.

Mr. Burns: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and I am reassured that ACPO has given that commitment. My only disappointment is that Transport Ministers will not give it. As he knows as well as I do, sadly, the only way, realistically, one can make a change
30 Mar 2006 : Column 1097
to the law in Parliament is through Government legislation or a private Member's Bill that the Government either support or are not prepared to block. I hope that, through his initiatives and lobbying, through ACPO and through the Minister relaying our concerns to the Department for Transport—and equally importantly, because Whips are the nuts and bolts that keep the system working, through the Whip, who has been listening very attentively—something can be done, in a reasonable but realistic way, to put an end to an abuse that not only costs money, but increases and to some extent encourages irresponsible driving, accidents, deaths and personal injuries.

2.51 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, I wish to raise a number of points. I apologise in advance for my voice. I do not sound like this because someone has made an unsuccessful attempt to strangle me; it is simply that I have a sore throat.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on his speech and, in particular, join him in welcoming the Olympic games to London in 2012. I know that Members have different views on that, but I certainly intend to make sure that Southend is at the heart of the celebrations. We intend to get the pier rebuilt in time so that it can be part of the opening celebrations.

I also want to take up my hon. Friend's very valid point about ladies playing sport. I have a 14-year-old girl who plays No. 9 for Arsenal. I can cope with her playing for Arsenal, because, although I support West Ham and Southend, it is a very successful ladies' team. He is right that we do not celebrate the success of women in sport enough. That is why it was disappointing that the BBC news did not report on the excellent progress of the ladies' football team in making their way towards the World cup finals.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I am interested to hear my hon. Friend's comments about women's football. They give me the opportunity to tell him and the House that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I chair, announced yesterday that it will hold a one-day inquiry into women's football, where I hope that we can address some of the issues that he has raised.

Mr. Amess: There we are. I am pushing at an open door, as far as my hon. Friend is concerned. That is wonderful news and I shall certainly make time, if not to be there in person to observe the inquiry, to read the evidence. I congratulate him on that.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who was a distinguished member of the Health Committee. I have just returned from Stockholm, where the Committee is doing important work examining independent treatment centres. He will be interested to know that yesterday Committee members had a robust debate on PFI initiatives and it was felt that one was slightly more successful in having PFI programmes endorsed by the Government if one happened to be a Labour Member of Parliament. Both my hon. Friend the Member for
30 Mar 2006 : Column 1098
Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) and I felt that if one was a Conservative Member of Parliament—as we obviously are—one did not have much of a look in. My hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford and for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) have a very strong case as far as Broomfield hospital is concerned and I am sure that the excellent Minister who will be replying to the debate will get the right answer from the Department of Health.

The Minister knows that I have raised on many occasions the situation of my constituent, Majid Narwaz. I am delighted to tell the House that I was at Heathrow airport last month to welcome him and his two fellow detainees back from Cairo. They had been sentenced to five years' imprisonment on absolutely trumped-up charges. They were tortured while in prison and what went on was deplorable. I pay tribute to the Foreign Office and the British embassy in Cairo for working as hard as possible to try to get my constituent released. I know that the Prime Minister takes regular holidays in Egypt, so I am sure that he took the opportunity to raise the matter with President Mubarak whenever he could.

I am delighted that Majid has been reunited with his wife, son and parents, but not delighted about the disgraceful reception to which the three young men were treated at Heathrow airport. I am mystified about what happened because in the endless debates in which I spoke about the matter, the answers to questions that I asked, and meetings with Ministers, it was clearly indicated to me—from the Foreign Secretary down—that the British Government agreed that the three men had been treated badly. I thus naturally assumed, in all innocence, that there would be a welcome reception for them at Heathrow airport, so I took the trouble, as I was instructed to do, to ensure only that they were escorted on to the plane in Egypt because it is apparently a practice of the Egyptian authorities to release people and then re-arrest them.

There were a huge number of people at Heathrow, many of whom were elderly relatives, but no provision had been made for the reception of the three young men. None of us can imagine what it was like to be in prison in Cairo. Never mind about the way things are in this country, for the first six months, the men were sleeping on concrete floors. They had no toilets and they were not allowed to go to the toilet—it really was "Midnight Express" stuff. However, rather than provision being made at Heathrow airport for a private reception for the three men and their close relatives, everyone was just left standing.

The plane touched down on time, but there was such a fiasco that it took four hours before we saw the men. I made phone calls to Whitehall during that time. It was not easy to get hold of an official, but, to cut a long story short, I was told that the arrangements were not the Foreign Office's responsibility because its responsibility was to get the men on the plane at Cairo. I was also told that the arrangements were not the responsibility of the Home Office, but a police matter. However, unless I have missed the plot, the Home Office has responsibility for the police.

Something that should have been a joyous occasion was absolutely spoiled by the arrangements. Whatever the reasons for the men being questioned, surely to goodness arrangements could have been made so that
30 Mar 2006 : Column 1099
they could spend five or 10 minutes with the people whom they had not seen for four years before the questioning took place. I am more than disappointed about what happened. I hope that the testimony that the three young men will be giving the Foreign Office about torture will be taken seriously because that is entirely against the United Nations convention.

I recently led a successful delegation to Rome and then on to the Vatican. We enjoyed a good meeting with Italian Members of Parliament in their Parliament, but, obviously, the highlight of the trip was meeting His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. As you can imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was delighted when, for the first time ever, the British ambassador to the Holy See happened to be a Catholic. I thought that that was a smart move. It is less than a smart move for the Foreign Office to decide to close the embassy to the Holy See and the ambassador's residence in the Vatican. This is a disgrace. These facilities have existed in the Vatican since the Lateran treaty. It is also a pretty dumb move on the part of the Government to invite the Pope to visit Britain next year and then to close our embassy to the Holy See and to take away the residence.

The Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 174 nations and all major powers have separate missions to the Vatican and to Rome. Britain and the Vatican are currently engaged in a vital dialogue on issues such as relations with Islam, development aid to Africa—the Chancellor of the Exchequer was happy to make a big speech in the Holy See last year on aid to Africa—as well as Anglican-Catholic rapprochement. On every count I would ask the Minister to ascertain from the Foreign Office what on earth is going on.

I have already decided to set up a forum for discussion and action on this issue, by setting up an all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See. I know that Members, quite rightly, get sick of these groups. I think that we have everything from tiddlywinks to "Coronation Street". However, I have decided to set up a forum on a serious issue. I hope that as many Members as possible of both Houses will join it and support the embassy in the Vatican as an independent entity and recognise the important international role that it performs. I cannot think of a more stupid time to close the embassy and to take away the residence than now. We have a wonderful ambassador there, Francis Campbell, and it is an insult, considering that we have the Holy Father visiting this country next year, that we should change our diplomatic relations.

I move on to local government. The Minister knows only too well that Southend borough council has been faced with extremely tough financial decisions following the fiasco of the census. It is wonderful that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has decided that the Office for National Statistics will be independent. That seems a bit late for Southend. The 2001 census left 20,000 people off the register in Southend. That meant that the Government's grant was reduced by £7 million. I and some of my hon. Friends met fairly recently at county hall at Chelmsford to discuss these matters, which greatly affect us. I intend to mention the disgraceful thing that has happened to the Essex police force.
30 Mar 2006 : Column 1100

At the beginning of the year, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and representatives from Southend borough council met the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), to discuss the shortfall in local finance. We took the opportunity to raise the fact that Southend received only a 2 per cent. increase in its grant from central Government, while local councils received on average a 3 per cent. increase. We all know about the Government's intention to cap councils. I think that they have decided to cap two and have threatened another three.

We were told at the meeting that council tax could not rise by more than 5 per cent. I am beginning to wonder what is the point of anyone standing in the council elections on 4 May. It seems that the Government tell people how much money to raise and how they should spend it. In every aspect of local government life, throughout the time that I have been a Member of this place, I have seen more and more central direction, and never more so than under this Government.

Despite the meeting that we had with the Minister, who was extremely courteous, when the figures for the final local government assessment were released they showed a fall in the total formula grant from the Government of £34,000. Perhaps there is a lesson for my hon. Friends; do not seek meetings with Ministers because we end up getting less money than if we did not bother to meet them. [Interruption.] Yes, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford says, it is a co-incidence that I happen to be a Conservative Member of Parliament.

To meet the Government's restrictions and produce a balanced budget without raising council tax by more than 5 per cent., Southend borough council needs to fill a funding gap of £11 million between expected income and expected expenditure. Southend is a small unitary authority and that has caused havoc locally, on top of budget reductions of £25 million over the past five years. Local councillors have had to make painful decisions. I suppose the Government think, "Oh well, let's hope the local electorate blame Conservative local councillors." It would be a great shame if that happened, because the difficulties are entirely a result of 20,000 people being omitted from the national census.

One critical casualty of the funding cuts has been the subsidy paid to commercial bus operators in Southend, forcing them to withdraw a number of vital services. I have been working hard with fellow councillors to restore a decent network of bus services in Southend. Unfortunately, thus far it has been difficult to find a prime sponsor without some sort of subsidy from the council, as the council does not have the money to provide a subsidy. However, the scheme that we are examining, and which I hope we can launch soon, is a taxi bus sharing system that will at least help our senior citizens get to Southend hospital and, I hope, take them to other parts of the town.

Southend is, I repeat, a small unitary authority faced with some very large challenges, such as the rebuilding of the pier, which has burned down for the third time, and the halting of the slippage of the cliffs. The council's current financial problems are the result of the
30 Mar 2006 : Column 1101
Government's failure to recognise local needs. My constituents are paying the price through cuts to local services across the town. That is unacceptable.

I understand that the Office for National Statistics is unwilling to review the population estimate. Why? The ONS should be made to accept that it made a mistake. Any Member of Parliament would complain on behalf of their constituents if they had 20,000 people left off the funding stream.

The next topic that I wish to raise is the matter of badgers. I recall Lord Waldegrave, as he now is, taking the Protection of Badgers Bill through the House. I spoke on Third Reading and said how much I welcomed the Bill. All these years on, I am beginning to reflect on that legislation. All the badgers in my part of Essex seem to have had a meeting and decided that they like the look of the back gardens of various terraced houses. In the small hours of the morning, they all seem to join arms and somehow—someone must leave the front door open—take over umpteen back gardens in Southend. That is causing havoc in residential areas.

Residents of Lymington avenue in Leigh-on-Sea, for instance, have had their gardens destroyed—not just one or two, but a number of houses. Garages are beginning to collapse and the foundations of houses are being destroyed. As if that was not bad enough, two weeks ago in Queen Anne's drive and Rochester drive in Westcliff, another crowd of badgers apparently got together and moved into back gardens there. Fences have been smashed, pets attacked and property destroyed by the animals from the six badger setts identified by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that run beneath their gardens.

I will not tire the House with details of the endless meetings that I have had with residents about getting the badgers moved. I would be so grateful if the Minister would have a word with his delightful colleague in DEFRA and try and get him to agree to a meeting with me and a few residents. I understand that since the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 came into force, only two orders have been served to try and get badgers peacefully removed.

The residents whom I have mentioned are not farmers and landowners who are concerned about the spread of bovine TB to their livestock. They are town dwellers, and their properties have been invaded by what I can only describe as urban badgers. Some people think that badgers are cuddly, but if one goes near a badger, one might lose one's arm, so no member of the general public should try to remove a badger. So far, DEFRA has failed to come up with a tenable solution to the problem, despite the increasingly bold and violent behaviour of those animals. Urban badgers are a bit like urban foxes. When I get off the train at Mudchute and go to my little pad on the Isle of Dogs, the foxes do not run away from the commuters, although some of them have three legs. The foxes walk around like dogs, and they have become increasingly domesticated.

An e-petition opposing badger culling as a method of preventing the spread of bovine TB has been signed by 11,350 people. Residents have advanced translocation as their preferred option, but DEFRA has rejected the application for a licence because of concerns about the spread of TB. It proposes to capture and humanely cull
30 Mar 2006 : Column 1102
the badgers, but that would also involve the animals being moved away from the houses, which still raises concerns about the spread of TB.

Next Section IndexHome Page