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25 May 2006 : Column 1695

Bexleyheath is a great centre and has facilities not just for pensioners but for many parts of the community. However, gangs of youths milling around are still a problem, and they sometimes come quite a distance, because, as we know, when a town has decent pubs or clubs, it attracts a lot of people. By the same token, there must be the transport to get those people home. Regrettably, as we have not been given the right number of buses and other transport facilities to get people home, the trouble carries on.

Recently, Crayford town centre, which is not an area that has had problems before, has suffered from gangs having car rallies or races around the local car parks. Again, that is intimidating and worrying and creates noise and nuisance. It frightens residents and causes disturbance in the evenings in a nice, quiet town. One could go on about such concerns. There has been wanton damage to parked cars in certain areas. Those issues must be addressed. The area now has an excellent new council under Conservative control, and Councillor Ian Clement, who is very much a community man, has already considered certain measures that he wants to implement.

I am sure that both the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) agree that we should adopt a zero-tolerance approach. We should say that we will not put up with the current situation, and that a range of measures are needed to deal with it. We may need more parenting courses, because parenting is a difficult task in today’s society. It is difficult to bring up children when there are so many pressures on individuals, including children. Of course we want parents to be responsible for their children, but what is so worrying is that sometimes they do not know where their children are. My wife and I regularly tried to find out where our children were when they were teenagers. That was very important to us: we cared. I often had to rush home from here to pick up my son from some party, or rave, or whatever it might be.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): You should have joined in.

Mr. Evennett: I am a child of the sixties. I liked Motown and Dusty Springfield. That was in a different age, though.

We also need the police to be more user-friendly. In the past, people have been unable to contact them because a mobile phone is not answered or they cannot get through to the police station. Bexley is fortunate in having a good police force under Robin Merrett, who is doing a tremendous job, but it is vital that people can contact the police when they need to. When they feel concerned because there are yobs outside, for instance, they should be able to contact their community policeman. They should be able to find someone at the end of a telephone line to whom they can talk.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington: we must ensure that there are things for youngsters to do. It is no good telling them what to do, because those of us who are a bit older had different interests and wanted to do different things when we were growing up. They need to be consulted. Bexleyheath has a first-class dance centre and a youth
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centre where people work tremendously hard, offering kick-boxing and many kinds of sport, but there are not enough centres such as that. There are not enough different opportunities for youngsters to do something constructive rather than milling around in groups, possibly drinking.

We need less talk and more action. Under our last Labour council there were endless committee meetings, talks and discussions. As I have often said, I would sit around with a large number of police officers and councillors who would be put to better use doing something constructive, such as going out on to the streets and looking after the community. We need fewer committees, and more action.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Young people in my constituency have told me that they have not been terribly impressed by the Government’s focus on the importance of “learning outcomes” from youth activities. Does my hon. Friend agree that young people who take advantage of youth services want to relax, have fun and engage with their friends? They do more than enough learning during the week at school.

Mr. Evennett: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point about life is that it should be varied. We should have opportunities to relax and enjoy sport, for instance, without thinking about learning outcomes, which are complete nonsense—and I speak as a former teacher. I consider learning to be very important.

Andrew Selous: At school.

Mr. Evennett: Yes, at school.

We need determination and, obviously, a visible police force, but something else is needed. Bexley is a great place: it is the second safest borough in London. That is only comparative, however. It is no good pointing out that it is the second safest borough if people in it are feeling frightened or threatened. We must be realistic. We must accept that there are problems locally, and that antisocial behaviour has consequences such as lack of concern, lack of respect, crime and criminal damage. We have heard often in the House in recent days that crime is not as bad as it was, but crime in Bexley increased by 6 per cent. last year, which is not impressive.

I welcome the opportunity to raise these issues today, which are of great concern to my constituents. I accept that the Government have done some things to address them, but they have done an awful lot of talking, as well. There is a lot more to be done to improve the quality of life in our borough.

3.15 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I want to discuss the case of a constituent of mine. Earlier this year,Mr. Singh came to my surgery to discuss his long-running dispute with Thames Water about the installation of a water meter at his property and the subsequent enormous rise in his family’s water charges. He told me that Thames Water was not given permission to install the meter, and that it gave him the impression in previous correspondence that a meter
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would enable him to save money on his water bills. That has not happened. Since the fitting of the water meter, Mr. Singh’s water charges have risen excessively: from £159 per annum—the current rateable value for his house—to £469 per annum, which is an increase of almost 300 per cent.

Mr. Singh’s is not a wealthy household in the home counties. There is no huge lawn to water or a swimming pool. His is a small household, consisting of only two adults and one child. The family tell me that they have always been very conservative in their use of water. They have no dishwasher, seldom run their appliances and try to make the most effective use of water by waiting a week before doing their washing. Since installation of the water meter, their usage has had to drop even further as they try to reduce their bills to manageable levels—but to no effect. With mounting bills, they now restrict themselves to the absolute minimum level of water consumption. They are genuinely afraid to turn on their taps and appliances, for fear of a further rise in the water bill. Certainly, since the meter was installed their water bills have trebled, while their already low usage has decreased. Clearly, there is a problem somewhere.

In response to Mr. Singh’s complaints, I wrote to the chief executive of Thames Water to express my and my constituent’s concerns about the water supply, and to request Thames Water’s assistance in investigating and diagnosing the error that was clearly occurring. I also asked whether it could provide Mr. Singh with the leak detection and repair service that it claims to offer its customers. I know that the House will be surprised and somewhat dismayed to learn that as of this morning, I have received only an acknowledgment of my letter of 17 March. Perhaps it is not just water that is leaking from Thames Water’s pipes.

We need to remember that Thames Water is the only privatised water company in England and Wales that continues to fail to meet its Ofwat targets for acceptable levels of leakages from its pipe system; indeed, it has failed to meet them for the past five years. I acknowledge that Thames Water has inherited some of the worst and oldest water pipes in the country, and that it is not easy to access and fix London’s underground pipes, but the Ofwat targets are not excessive. Thames Water’s own estimate of water leaked per year has in fact risen: from 688 million litres a day in 2000-01 to 915 million litres a day in 2004-05. That accounted for approximately a quarter of all the water leaked throughout England and Wales.

Let me be more specific. Each day, 915 million litres of precious water leak of out Thames Water’s pipes. That amounts to 10,590 litres of water wasted per second. One third of the total amount piped into the water distribution system is lost.

I accept that totally eliminating water leakage is not economically practical, but Thames Water is not doing enough. Instead of concentrating its efforts and resources on reducing the waste of an increasingly precious and vital national resource, Thames Water could be accused of concentrating on squeezing further profits out of its customers. Instead of making its supply network as reliable and efficient as is practically possible, it focuses its considerable efforts on persuading householders to accept the installation of
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water meters, while also raising prices in an effort to reduce demand and ensure that it is able to fund dividend payments to its shareholders. Those dividend payments have been at least £130 million a year for the past six years.

I fear that Thames Water’s actions will have the effect of pricing many people out of the hygienic use and consumption of water. Should that continue, it may result in a public health problem. Let us remember that consumers of water have no realistic option to change their supplier if they are unhappy with the service provided, the cost charged or quality of product. The Government have already recognised fuel poverty as a real issue that affects many low-income households across the UK, and the prospect of compulsory water meters raises the prospect of water poverty.

Despite the miserable weather that we have had this week, the south-east appears to be entering a period of drought. We are beginning to see hosepipe bans and hearing talk of drought orders being enforced. Water customers are being asked to restrict their usage, while enormous quantities of water are wasted by inefficient infrastructure. Surely something can be done to pressure water companies to increase their renewal and improvement of the pipe network. Let us remember that those companies have a statutory responsibility to supply water to their paying customers. Why should customers accept conservation measures that assist a private profit-making company which seems more interested in returning profits to its investors than in fixing leaks that waste such enormous amounts of clean, precious water?

The case of Mr. Singh raises concerns about our water companies in general, and Thames Water in particular. It is their responsibility to provide an acceptable level of service to all their customers who, I repeat, have no alternative water supplier. How can Thames Water justify relying on customers to reduce their consumption while allowing a third of the water supply to leak out of its pipes? And how can it be right to promote water metering when it hits the poorest households in this country hardest, and risks pricing low-income households out of the opportunity to use fresh, clean water in 21st century London?

As water becomes a more scarce resource, it must surely be the right time for further Government measures to improve regulation of the water industry. The water industry must get its own house in order before it can lecture its paying customers on what they should be doing to solve this crisis. The water companies must remember that they are not only there to look after the interests of their shareholders: they must balance that with the interests of the public they are there to serve.

3.24 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I wish to take the opportunity today to raise a few constituency issues. I represent a large rural constituency, so transport is a key issue and will be the theme of all the issues that I shall raise. Faced with the threat of global warming and climate change, we need to use the taxation system to change people’s behaviour and encourage them to use more public transport where it is available.

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However, public transport is not a practical solution in many very remote areas. We need a road pricing system that allows us to vary charges, so that it would cost more to drive in congested areas where there are public transport alternatives but a lot less to drive in very remote areas where there is no alternative. Using potholed, single-track roads should cost a lot less than using busy motorways.

It is obvious that road pricing is still quite a few years away. Until it can be introduced, we need to modify the present vehicle taxation system to take account of the fact that some parts of the country have public transport alternatives while others do not.

I want to talk about vehicle excise duty and fuel duty. There is a strong argument for a lower rate of VED in rural areas to compensate for the lack of public transport alternatives. People would still pay fuel duty according to how much they use their cars, but they should be compensated by paying less in VED, which at present is a fixed charge. Moreover, we should charge a lower rate of duty on fuel sold at remote petrol stations. That would require an EU derogation that several other member states have already received. Britain did not oppose that, and I urge the Government to apply for the same derogation in respect of very remote areas in this country.

I shall give an example of why we need that derogation. Petrol sold at pumps on the islands of Mull and Islay costs about 15p or 20p more per litre than it does in big cities. The irony is that people who live in areas where they have to drive long distances, and where there is no public transport alternative, have to pay far more for fuel than do people who have to drive only short distances and who have alternatives. That is hardly fair, and a more equitable tax system would introduce lower fuel duties for a few very remote parts of our country.

Ideally, people should be able to use public transport instead of having to rely on their cars. The Government’s policy is supposed to be to encourage people to do so, so it is a scandal that Royal Mail, a Government agency, should be withdrawing postbus services in my constituency. In the past month, it has announced the withdrawal of those services between Dunoon and Tighnabruaich, between Inveraray and Dalmally, and between Lochgilphead and Inveraray.

That is bizarre. A Royal Mail van has to travel those routes every day in any case, and the postbus service was based on the fact that passengers could be carried at no extra cost or damage to the environment.

The reasons that Royal Mail has given for the decision are also a bit strange. It has said that it is ending the postbus service on the Dunoon-Tighnabruaich route because it was too popular, but that the other two routes have been closed because they were not popular enough. We do not seem to be able to win—if Royal Mail wants to end a service, it will find a reason.

Royal Mail has said that the Government’s move earlier this year to open up postal services to full competition means that it has to concentrate all its efforts on its core business—collecting, sorting and delivering mail—in order to survive. That is not joined-up government: surely all Government owned bodies have a duty to follow Government policy, which
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is to promote social inclusion and the protection of the environment. Clearly, it is a social inclusion matter if people are trapped in their homes because they cannot travel.

I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to speak to his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and urge them to intervene by telling Royal Mail to keep its postbus services.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): The hon. Gentleman should speak to the Transport Minister in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Reid: Royal Mail is a reserved power, and the responsibility of the Government here. The Scottish Parliament’s Transport Minister has no control over it.

I urge Ministers to change Royal Mail’s remit. All Government-owned bodies should have a social and environmental remit, as well as a remit to carry out their core business and balance the books.

I am concerned about the Post Office side of the Royal Mail. The planned withdrawal of the post office card account in 2010 will threaten the viability of thousands of rural post offices. I urge the Government to think again. The Government have also hurt post offices by taking away the TV licence business, encouraging motorists to renew their vehicle excise duty through the internet rather than at post offices, and by refusing to allow the Post Office to bid for the contract for conducting new passport interviews. They seem determined to close thousands of rural post offices, which will certainly be the result if those policies are not changed. The Government should be giving business opportunities to post offices instead of driving them away. Post offices fulfil an important economic and social role in rural communities and we cannot afford to lose them.

I referred to passport interviews. From the end of this year people applying for their first passport need to attend for an interview. The Government promised that nobody would need to travel for more than an hour to attend. From the proposals published by the Passport Office, for the highlands and islands that looks like being yet another broken Government promise. In my constituency the Government are opening a new passport office in Oban and there will be a set of satellite offices with webcam links to the main office, so that people can be interviewed down the webcam. Given the set of offices proposed it will be impossible for many of my constituents to reach the nearest office or webcam link within an hour, certainly using normal modes of transport, and I am sure that the Government will not be providing helicopters.

It is interesting that in setting the one hour limit, the Government were anticipating that everybody would use a car. Certainly it would take several hours by public transport to reach those offices. Even with a car, it will be impossible for people in villages on the west coast, such as Tayvallich and Achnamara, to drive within an hour to the nearest passport interview centre in either Oban or Campbeltown.

Norman Lamb: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Post Office tried to tender for the contract to operate as passport offices, but was denied the opportunity to do
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so, denying local people the chance of a local facility for renewing their passport? Does my hon. Friend agree that that seems crazy, given what is happening to the post office network?

Mr. Reid: My hon. Friend is right and he anticipates my speech. I was going to mention that very fact later on. Obviously, nearly everybody lives well within an hour’s journey from a post office, so the answer was to conduct the interview at the post office. That would have the double benefit of being easy for people to reach and providing the Post Office network with a valuable source of income. That is what the Government should have done, if they had wanted to keep to their promise that people would be required to make a journey lasting no more than an hour.

People on Iona will have no chance of travelling for an interview within an hour, but there is no proposal for an office there. Travelling by car and ferry to the nearest office on Mull will take well over an hour. People who live in towns and villages on the Gareloch or on the east side of Loch Long are expected to travel to the main passport office in Glasgow—a journey that will take more than an hour. The journey to Glasgow by train, taking into account the time to reach the nearest station, will take over an hour. Given the state of Glasgow traffic, driving into the centre will take over an hour. I urge the Minister to take this information back to his colleagues in the Home Office. The Passport Office certainly needs to reconsider the proposed network of offices in the highlands and islands.

Although at present only people applying for their first passport need attend for interview, if the Government get their way and introduce compulsory identity cards, people renewing their passports after 2010—if the election is delayed until then—will have to do so, too. Everybody will need to attend such offices if the Government get their way.

I have concerns about the Government’s proposals for a private finance initiative contract for the joint search and rescue helicopter service, which at present is operated extremely efficiently by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It is a vital service that saves people’s lives and it works well. Rescue services are not a suitable candidate for privatisation, so I urge the Government to think again. If something is working well, why change it?

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