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Mr. Heath: The House is treating the hon. Gentleman's comments with some levity, but the issue is serious. I used to be woken up every Sunday morning by people complaining about the badgers in Castle Cary. However, that particular problem has not arisen in my constituency recently, so perhaps those badgers have moved to Southend.
DEFRA's conviction that badgers are the chief transmitters of the disease to cattle is the foundation of its proposal to introduce some sort of licensed cull. On 15 December last year, DEFRA issued a consultation paper on badger culling, seeking views on its three proposed licence-based culling options. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry on bovine TB and badger culling was undertaken to contribute to that consultation, which finished on 10 March. The evidence collated in the report shows some significant holes in the Government's proposalsthe holes were identified by scientific experts and had been overlooked by DEFRA in the pre-consultation process.
There was wide concern that not only was there not enough scientific proof to achieve consensus on any one of DEFRA's proposals, but the evidence from the badger-culling trial, which took place in 2005, and the work of the independent scientific groups on cattle TB, show that localised reactive badger culling was associated with increases of up to 25 per cent. in the number of cattle herds with TB. Incidents of confirmed TB were also higher on land neighbouring proactive areas, which is otherwise known as the edge effect. Those results help us to understand why badger culling has been an effective strategy in the past for controlling TB, and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) recently admitted that 80 per cent. of the transmission of the disease is from cattle to cattle.
There are many ways to deal with the spread of TB other than killing badgers. For instance, Professor Tim Roper, who is currently running a three-year investigation on the activities of urban badgers, has said that in the long-term
which goes against the view of the National Farmers Union that robust culling measures are the answer. Professor Roper is well aware of the sensitive nature of incidents involving urban badger populations, and he has mentioned the extent of the public and parliamentary demonstrations that were mounted when attempts were made to catch and destroy badgers in Saltdean in East Sussex that were undermining the foundations of several homes in the area.
That emotional response is just a taste of what would ensue should the Government decide to follow through on a much larger culling programme. In 2004, when questioned on how to deal with the problem of urban badger populations by my hon. Friend the Member for
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Castle Point (Bob Spink), who had also had considerable difficulties with badgers in residential areasalthough he has probably moved them all on to Southend, Westthe Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Exeter, responded by saying that there is no simple answer to the question.
You can say that again, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point is obvious in the extreme. If there were a simple solution, my constituents would not have suffered years of indecisive inaction from DEFRA on the removal of these badgers from Leigh-on-Sea and Westcliff. I am still awaiting a response from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), as to whether he will meet me and the affected residents to discuss the extent of the badger problem in Southend. I hope that such a discussion will bring home the plight of the urban dwellers, as well as rural landowners and farmers, who are affected by the issues surrounding badger culling.
As two of my hon. Friends from Essexmy hon. Friends the Member for West Chelmsford and for Maldon and East Chelmsfordare here, let me say that I share their anger about what has happened as regards the merger of Essex police force with those of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. In Essex, we enjoy very good relations with Kent police force. However, it is completely unfair and unreasonable that its police force is allowed to stand alone while Essex's is not. My hon. Friends and I, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), have campaigned and worked extremely hard on this issue.
One reason why we are so upset about it is that for several years we had concerns about the style of policing in Essex, many of which are well known to the House. Just at a time when we have secured the employment of an excellent chief constable whom I believe to be the best in the country and who is absolutely determined to give the general public the style of policing that we all wantin other words, when a crime is reported it is not ignored but someone turns up to investigate the situationwe find that this merger is to take place. I hope that it will be possible to have a referendum on this issue in Essex. My hon. Friends and I are absolutely determined to continue to campaign on it.
I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that as Members of Parliament we are not allowed to criticise the judiciary, and I understand that. However, I am very concerned about the inconsistencies in sentencing, particularly when someone takes another person's life. Several of us feel very strongly about that. Recently, when someone was murdered fairly locally, the two young men were caught, and one got 12 months and one got 14 months. That was the value placed on that person's life. I know that Ministers will say that the Sentencing Guidelines Council considers all these issues, but I am less than happy with the lack of consistency.
My hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point, for Rochford and Southend, East and for Rayleigh and I remain concerned about the proposed reconfiguration of cancer services in Southend. If some of the important
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specialisms are removed, that will eventually lead to Southend being a less attractive place for clinicians to work in.
British Airways used to be the best airline in the world. That is no longer the case as far as I am concerned. Lord King was a wonderful pioneer, and I am afraid that since his departure British Airways has gone down and down in my estimation. Its flights are poorly timetabled, its airliners are often not clean and tidy, some of the prices that it charges are outrageous, and it has a monopoly on some services. I understand that one or two lords serve on the board and I hope that they will read my complaint about the airline.
I was glad that several hon. Friends mentioned abortion. Before the general election, the leaders of the three main parties said, initially in response to a magazine article, how important it was. A year later, nothing has happened. It cannot be right that we continue to abort babies up to term on the ground of a cleft palate when we have special baby care units that now save babies at 22 and a half weeks. There is no point in being in politics unless one is interested in people's lives. Parliament's continued equivocation about when life begins is unacceptable.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): As ever with pre-recess Adjournment debates, hon. Members' contributions have ranged widely. One of the delights of my role as shadow Leader of the House is the opportunity that the debates afford to learn a great deal more about colleagues' constituencies. The challenge of my role is to do justice to the many contributions. I will do my best.
It was interesting that several contributions referred to issues that have been raised regularly in business questions in recent weeks, when hon. Members have urged the Leader of the House to hold full debates in Government time on them. The right hon. Gentleman has resisted. The fact that so many hon. Members were willing to raise them again today shows the genuine need for a proper Government debate on matters such as the Post Office card account and the national health service.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) did the House a service by speaking about the Post Office card account. It is remarkable that the subject has been raised week in, week out, by hon. Members of all partiesLabour Members have mentioned their concerns, toofor almost the whole time that I have been shadow Leader of the House, yet the Government have not been willing to grant a debate in Government time on that important issue. Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry, with its responsibility for the Post Office, and in the Department for Work and Pensions, with its responsibility for the card account, have not even made oral statements on the matter.
The Leader of the House has consistently reiterated the Government's commitment to the Post Office. Given that its chief executive told an all-party group that removing the card account could lead to a reduction in the number of post offices from approximately 14,000 to 4,000meaning the closure of 10,000 post officesthe Government must wake up and understand that they will face a stark decision as a result of their action. How
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will they back up the commitment to the Post Office, continue to support it in future, and ensure that the damaging closure of branches, which we have already experienced, does not become the threatened cull of post offices?
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised serious issues concerning children. His commitment to fighting for children's interests is well known. He also mentioned such matters in the Christmas Adjournment debate. His remarks about the use of the caution for those who take indecent photographs of children raises two issues: child pornography and the treatment of paedophiles, and appropriate use by the police and the judiciary of their powers, not only to punish wrongdoing but to protect society. They have a duty to do both. We must never forget that every indecent image of a child reflects an incident of child abuse. I hope that the Government have listened very carefully to my hon. Friend's observations on this serious issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point also raised the issue of abortion, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I share their interest in that issue being reassessed, and the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point about the time limit for abortions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point also mentioned the Government's proposals for police mergersan issue that was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. I hesitate to say that there was an Essex mafia in the Chamber today, but that did appear to be the case. Time after time, the Prime Minister has said in the Chamber that he will listen to local people's views on police mergers, so why are the Government ignoring the views not only of local people but of the police? That is happening not only in Essex but across the country. This illustrates the fact that the Government have no proper regional policy, which is a sad fact for a Labour Government. Their answer to regional policy is simply to create larger and larger bureaucratic structures, be they police forces, strategic health authorities, primary care trusts, fire authorities or ambulance services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point also mentioned overdevelopment, a problem that affects many constituencies up and down the country. We all agree that there is a demand for housing, and particularly for affordable homes, but that is not a reason for cramming development into back gardens and infill sites. Nor is the need for family homes met by the tendency to knock down family homes and replace them with flats, as I have seen happening in Shoppenhangers road in my constituency. Such a practice might meet the Deputy Prime Minister's density requirements and his target number for dwellings, but it does not provide the kind of housing that people need. It changes the character of areas, and puts unacceptable pressure on infrastructure such as roads, schools, GPs' surgeries and utilities such as water.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point might like to suggest to Essex county council that it follow the example set by Conservative-controlled Wokingham
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district council, which has commissioned independent consultants to assess the cost of the infrastructure needed to support the new homes that the Government require it to build as part of their target. If every council did that, we would have a clear picture of the hundreds of millions of pounds that will need to be spent on infrastructure to support the new homes that the Government are proposing to build.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who, unfortunately, is no longer in her place, mentioned her desire for two schools in her constituency, Mitcham Vale and Tamworth Manor, to be given academy status. I think that I am right in sayingI am sure that she will correct me, on reading Hansard, if I am wrongthat Mitcham Vale is the school that I knew as Eastfields when I was chairman of the local education authority in Merton. I was grateful to her for her words of gratitude for the significant contribution made to education by my noble Friend Lord Harris, who has shown an incredible commitment to improving education in south London. He has truly put his money where his mouth is.
The hon. Lady made a number of comments about the position taken by the Conservative group on Merton council, and implied that it was blocking progress on the academies. My understanding is that, in fact, the official survey on the issue showed that people in the London borough of Merton were four to one against that development. The issue raised by Conservative councillors was that these decisions needed to be taken in full knowledge of the implications for other schools. Merton is tied in to a 25-year private finance initiative for its schools. The two schools mentioned by the hon. Lady would be allowed to withdraw from that, but that would result in implications for other schools that would need to be addressed.
Education in Merton as a whole has undergone a considerable upheaval in recent years, with the move under a Labour authority from a three-tier system to a two-tier system. I recall from my days of chairing the education authority there that the Labour councillors were rather more in favour of three-tier education than they now appear to be. Sadly, since my time, Merton has slipped significantly down the league table of education standards in London, and that is a matter of considerable concern to the residents of that borough.
Another topic that has been raised by several Members, as well as being raised constantly in business questionsand rightly sois that of the NHS. As we see thousands of jobs being cut across the health service, operations cancelled, waiting times extended and trusts in deficit, the Health Secretary has said that this has been the "best year" for the health service. I sometimes wonder what Ministers in this Government spend their time doing. They certainly do not seem to spend their time going out there to find out what is happening in the services for which they have responsibility. We need to take every opportunity, as a number of Members have done today, to bring home to the Government what is happening in the health service in our constituencies, because it is not what the Government like to think is happening.
The issue of the health service was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for Uxbridge (Mr Randall) and for Southend, West. My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford put in an
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excellent and well-argued claim for the private finance initiative in Mid Essex Hospital Services trust, centred on Broomfield hospital, to be given proper consideration by the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge referred to Mount Vernon and the removal of cancer services, which, as I said to him, affects some of my constituents, too. The issue of the reconfiguration of cancer services was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. That issue is of concern across many areas of the country. In my area, cancer services are being moved from the Royal Berkshire and Battle hospital trust to the John Radcliffe in Oxford. Again, local people want to have easy access in their locality to the services that they need from the health service.
The NHS was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and, from a different angle, by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who gave a serious speech on the integration of social services and the health service, and spoke particularly about the needs of people with dementia. He is right that there is a real need to reassess services for those with dementia, particularly given the paucity of beds in residential care homes for people with dementia. I trust that my hon. Friend the Whip on duty will ask where the hon. Member for North Swindon is. I trust that he will read my comments in Hansard to see what has been said about his contribution.
The issue of integrating social services with health services is particularly important and will cause considerable concern to many people, in many areas, in the coming months. Given the deficits in primary care trusts in many areas, increased pressure will be put on social services departments in local authorities. We are told by the Association of Directors of Social Services that social services budgets are already £1.76 billion underfunded. The Government therefore need to address that issue, which arises from deficits in the health service.
Apart from Essex, the east midlandsI think that I have got my midlands rightwere well represented in our debate by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire referred to my response to his speech in the Christmas Adjournment debate. Were he present, I would assure him that I always find his contributions riveting, although I suspect that the same cannot always be said for his Front Bench. He raised important points about our reactions to the problems of the environment and of climate change in particular, and talked about the need for the Government to ensure that the measures that they introduce in those areas are going to work.
We all know, of course, that the Government have now admitted that they will not meet their own targets for greenhouse gas emissions. In business questions earlier, the Leader of the House indicated to one of my right hon. Friends that he felt that only this Government had done anything on climate change. Of course, the Government's initial success on carbon dioxide emissions, from which they are now slipping back, came about only because of decisions by the last Conservative Government to change from coal-fired power stations.
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The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire referred to measures such as the aggregates levy, which have not always achieved what they set out to achieve. He also did something else that I thought was important: he spoke of ways in which, at a very local level, individuals could take effective action. He referred particularly to energy efficiency in homes and insulation. I pay tribute to a local authority that has done a great deal in that regardWoking council, which is Conservative-controlled and has made significant strides in reducing emissions. It is, I suggest, a beacon for other authorities.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire raised the important issue of farm payments and the Rural Payments Agency. I consider it despicable that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has failed to come to the House to explain what has happened in the agency, and to apologise to farmers up and down the country for the fact that, month in month out, she and her Ministers have been saying that there is no problem and that farmers will receive their payments. As we know from my right hon. Friend and others, that is not the case. Farmers are not receiving their payments, and many are extremely frustrated by the bureaucracy in the agency.
One of my local farmers recently sent me a letter that he had received from staff at the agency telling him that he had not filled in a form which needed to be sent back. He rang up and told them that he had completed the form, and that it had been sent to them some time earlier. They said, "No, that was a letter that we sent out just in case." That is the sort of bureaucracy that really does frustrate people, and when they are not receiving payments it becomes even more frustrating.
It was a pleasure to take a trip to the Isle of Wight during the debate, courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). He raised specific issues about the operation of the national health service on the island. The overarching theme was that the Government should note that his constituency, as an island, experiences particular problems with the provision of servicesnot just NHS serviceswhich are not experienced in other parts of the country. It is not as easy for people on the Isle of Wight to travel elsewhere to obtain their services. My hon. Friend has consistently raised the problem of the lack of dentists on the island, and he did so again today. The same theme has been repeated by many Members in all parts of the House during other debates and question sessions.
What concerned me was my hon. Friend's comment that he felt that some people in the health service were being discouraged from asking him, as a Member of Parliament, to raise issues that were important to them. It is the job of Members to raise issues that are of concern in their constituencies. It may be uncomfortable for Ministers; it may even, on occasion, be uncomfortable for senior managers in public services, but they cannot and should not silence the elected representatives of the people. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for continuing to raise his concerns despite attempts to prevent him from doing so.
I join my hon. Friend in commending Conservative-controlled Isle of Wight council for making positive changes for the islanders. I commend it particularly for stepping in to pay the fares of those who need to cross the Solent for health service treatment, and for
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introducing a low bus fare for young people. Young people often tell me that they cannot afford to travel to places that they want to visit, and that it is too expensive for them to do the many things that they want to do. The new service on the Isle of Wight is very valuable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge ranged widely over a variety of topics, but began with a thoughtful comment on the situation in the Balkans, particularly Kosovo. One of his remarks really struck home, at least for me: he said that for the sake of the peace of Europe, we should not ignore developments in that area. Indeed, I suggest to my hon. Friend that the history of Europe shows that we should never ignore the Balkans.
My hon. Friend's wish for a debate on foreign affairs was also expressed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, although his emphasis was on Iraq and Afghanistan. Both speeches demonstrated the real need for us to engage in a proper debate in the Chamber, in Government time, on the Government's foreign policy and their foreign policy aims. That was also reflected in a comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West about the closure of the embassy to the Holy See. We need to know from the Government what they are trying to achieve with their foreign policy. They published a White Paper this week that talked of active diplomacy, but people cannot indulge in active diplomacy if they go around shutting embassies and high commissions.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome also referred to the work being done by our armed forces, and I am sure that we all wish to pay tribute to all our armed forces personnel, both regulars and reservists, who serve abroad on our behalf.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge also spoke about the Olympics, and said that the promised development of facilities should be encouraged rather than deferred because of the prospect of the Olympics. When Olympic bids were first being discussed, I understand that there were more 50 m swimming pools in Paris than in the whole of England. The new 50 m pool that my hon. Friend mentioned is therefore much needed.
I also heartily endorse my hon. Friend's comment that we need to promote women's sport. I add my congratulations to the women's England rugby team, and I recall the success of the England women's cricket team in winning the Ashes last summer. It was noticeable during the Commonwealth games that our women athletes had rather more medal success on the track than the men. And while I am on a sporting theme, I cannot miss this opportunity to congratulate Reading football club on their promotion to the premier league.
Several of my hon. Friends raised the serious issue of identity fraud, and the use of other people's addresses and mailbox addresses. My hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford and for Uxbridge raised that issue and paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has taken a particular interest in it. As he mentioned, he had a meeting today with the senior police officer from ACPO responsible for that issue. It has been recorded that one vehicle was responsible for 120 offencesI assume that they were speeding offences. That reveals the size of the problem. It is an interesting problem,
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because the Government keep telling us that identity cards will resolve it, but they will not. I only hope that the serious way in which ACPO are treating the issue, according to my hon. Friend, will be reflected in the measures taken by the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West also addressed a range of topics. He has been assiduous in his work to get his constituent released from jail in Egypt, and as he said, he was very pleased when that was achieved, although he was understandably saddened by the Government's approach to his constituent's return. I trust that the Government have noted my hon. Friend's comments about their treatment of that individual.
My hon. Friend also mentioned local council funding, and made an interesting point about why people would wish to become councillors, given that so many decisions are now made by central Government. That is a very real problem. So many powers have been taken away from local government that many people think twice about becoming councillors. That is also why turnout in local government elections has fallen so dramatically. The restoration of powers to local government would be a real means of restoring people's interest in local democracy.
My hon. Friend also raised the serious issue of delinquent badgers. I am tempted to say that the Government's response to such behaviour is usually to slap on an ASBO, so perhaps he should consult the police and local authority on that possibility. Despite the enjoyment that we had in listening to his description of those badgers, it is a serious issue. My hon. Friend questioned the effectiveness of culling in preventing bovine TB, but many farmers are distraught at the lack of action by the Government and the length of time that they have taken to recognise the seriousness and importance of the issue. Most of the evidence suggests that culling of some sort is what is needed.
Turning to some of the key themes emerging from this debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire gave examples of how the Government are not fulfilling their promises. That is perhaps a familiar theme, but he illustrated it well withdare I say it?concrete examples from his own constituency. As I know from the experience of the A404, Ministers turn up and make promises about resurfacing a road to eliminate noise, and thenlo and beholdthe budget is scrapped and the scheme does not go ahead. Ministers make everybody feel happy by giving the impression that something is going to happen; then, two years down the line, the budget is scrapped and nothing happens.
Imagine what pensioners felt about the Government's approach to last year's £200 council tax rebate. Suddenly, council tax was so high that pensioners needed support from the Government to help them pay for it. This year council tax is rising even further, so one assumes that the problems experienced by the many elderly people who had to be helped last year are even worse. What are the Government doing? They are not providing a single penny. The Deputy Leader of the House will probably say that in a pre-election year, all Governments try to present their best face to the electorate, which is of course true, but the £200 rebate was the most blatant and cynical election bribe we have ever seen.
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However, that fits in with the theme of this debate: the Government's failure to deliver, when they are taxing people so highly that the Minister with responsibility for higher education has told us that people have been taxed to the hilt and cannot take any more. The Government are out of touch. The Health Secretary considers this the best year ever for the health service, yet thousands of jobs have been cut and trusts up and down the country have deficits of hundreds of millions of pounds. So many promises, so much money spent, so little achieved. It is a sad fact that this Government, who have two Prime Ministers and are internal disarray, are in no position to give the Easter message of new birth and hope for the future. The Government's record was summed up by Sir Derek Wanless on Radio 4 this morning when he said:
I finish by echoing what I, and the Leader of the House, said at business questions earlier today. I am extremely grateful to Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, for taking on extra responsibilities in Mr. Speaker's absence. I also thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, for taking on those extra responsibilities in turn. You have all stepped into the breach, and I wish you, all Members of this House and all its staff and Officers a very happy Easter.
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