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Another concern is the proposed competitive tender for ferry services currently operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. The tender was forced on the Scottish Executive by European rules, but deficiencies in UK employment law mean that the tendering process will not be fair, and I urge the Government to look into them. UK employment law does not give seafarers the same rights as workers on land. The minimum wage does not apply to services outwith UK internal waters, which are not the same as territorial waters; internal waters are mainly river estuaries. Caledonian MacBrayne pays more than the minimum wage, but the rules do not apply to services from the Scottish mainland to most of the islands. The PFI opens up the possibility that a foreign-registered company could
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win the contract and although TUPE—Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations—would protect existing staff, the company could easily replace them as they leave over time with people employed on less than the minimum wage. There is clearly a loophole in the law.

There is another loophole in respect of vessels sailing in UK territorial waters. If the employing company is based outside the UK and does not operate in the UK, it can avoid employers’ national insurance contributions. I do not understand why the Chancellor allows that loophole to continue, as he is clearly losing revenue. It also means that if Caledonian MacBrayne is to have any chance of winning the contract it will be forced to transfer all its employees to an offshore company based outwith the UK, perhaps in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. As well as the loss to the Treasury, UK rules, such as those on the minimum wage, will not apply.

I urge the Government to look into the matter. I do not understand why seafarers sailing on routes that are entirely within UK territorial waters do not have the same employment protections as workers on land.

The next issue I want to raise is the switchover from analogue to digital television. It is an exciting opportunity that opens up tremendous prospects, but we must be aware of the problems for many vulnerable people. I am pleased that the Government have promised to help such people, but under current proposals that help will have to come from the BBC licence fee, which is not an appropriate vehicle. The licence fee is a poll tax and whereas it is right for it to be used for the provision of BBC services, support for vulnerable people during switchover is a social need, which the Government should meet through general taxation. The BBC has proposed an increase in the licence fee to £180 in a few years if those costs are forced on it. That is excessive and I urge the Government to reconsider the matter.

I hope that the Minister will consider the issues that I have raised and that there will be Government action on them.

3.40 pm

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I have been interested to hear what all hon. Members have said today. In particular, I was struck by the comments that hon. Members have made about health care in their constituencies. It has been said that Labour Members—or at least Ministers—seem to be living in a parallel universe. My experience of the NHS in my home city of Hull is very positive. Just one example is a recent visit that I paid to the Hull and East Yorkshire eye hospital. A consultant told me that the time between his seeing a person who needs a cataract operation and his operating on them is now nine days. That is in marked contrast to the months and months that people had to wait in the past.

I am also aware of the local improvement finance trust projects in my constituency—taking place through the NHS and private finance—to build community-based NHS facilities to replace some of the old-fashioned facilities that we had in the past. Hull’s NHS services have been chronically underfunded for many years, so I am delighted at the investment that
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has gone in since 1997 and I can certainly see that coming to fruition. When I talk to my constituents, they cannot speak highly enough of the NHS.

My theme today is health and, in particular, the wider agenda in relation to public health. I am delighted that we have had many opportunities to talk about public health since I arrived in the House. We took a historic vote on smoking in public places and I was delighted that so many Members backed the ban. I was also delighted that a new Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), introduced the Children’s Food Bill in the private Members’ ballot. I am delighted that several of the Bill’s proposals were adopted by the Government, but there is still more to do. Yesterday, I was pleased to see the Third Reading of the Education and Inspections Bill, which contains provisions relating to nutritional standards in all our schools.

All those measures added together show that the Government are committed to the public health agenda. I want to talk specifically about the public health agenda in my home city of Hull. I am saddened to say that the Liberal Democrats in my home city are taking retrograde steps when it comes to improving the public health of the people of Hull. I will put the matter in context. The National Obesity Forum recently produced some figures showing that more than a quarter of English secondary school children are clinically obese. That is almost double the proportion from a decade ago. The National Obesity Forum says that a “public health time-bomb” is in the making because children who are obese in their early teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50.

I am interested in that because Hull has some poor health statistics. We are high up in the cancer league tables. The number of teenage pregnancies has been high. Our educational achievements have not been as good as they should have been. Our housing stock is not as good as it could be. The unemployment situation has not been as good as it could be, although obviously it has got better in recent years. For all those reasons, the council, the NHS in Hull, and the voluntary and community sector are thinking carefully about what they can do collectively to improve the health of young people and children in our primary schools.

By the time Jamie Oliver took up the issue of healthy school meals, Hull was already ahead of the game. People in Hull had sat down quite a while ago and looked at some proposals in relation to the excellence in cities schemes, education action zones and the children’s fund moneys that were available. Breakfast clubs had been set up in schools and fruit had been provided. Things were thus already happening, but Hull was unique because it took the bold step of deciding to introduce healthy free school meals for all children in our primary schools.

Hull could do that because of the Education Act 2002, which allows local authorities to go to the Department for Education and Skills and ask to change and innovate, if they think that they can make a real difference in their communities. Hull city council approached the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and he agreed that we could innovate. The idea of free healthy school meals for all pupils in our primary schools thus went ahead.

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The scheme has been an enormous success. Children have started to eat much more healthy lunches and they are getting breakfast when they arrive at school first thing in the morning. Fruit and water are also made available during the day, so there is a whole package of measures. The university of Hull is undertaking an ongoing review to examine the effects of healthy eating in our schools. Everyone is agreed that the scheme is an innovative and exciting way of trying to tackle some of the public health problems that can start early in a child’s life. If children adopt healthy eating early in life, it is likely that they will maintain it in their teenage years and adulthood.

The cost of the scheme is about £3.8 million in 2005-06, and Hull city council has been able to bear that cost. The scheme fits in with the Chancellor’s view of investing to save because I believe that such investment early in children’s lives will mean that the NHS will be saved a huge amount later on because it will not have to deal with the problems of obesity, given that we all know that diabetes and cancer are more prevalent among people with weight problems.

The scheme in Hull has won the Caroline Walker Trust award for promoting healthy eating to improve public health. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who is the Minister responsible for public health, recently visited Hull and discovered at first hand how much children are enjoying the free healthy food when she had a healthy school lunch at the Parks primary school. Hull has made it clear that it is happy and willing to share the good practice that has been developed in the city both nationally and internationally. It recently hosted an international conference to spread such good practice.

I am bringing the matter to the House’s attention because, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrat group on Hull city council has decided that it wishes to return to the policy that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom, whereby children whose parents are on certain benefits become entitled to free school meals. The Conservative leader on the council agrees with the Liberal Democrats about opting out of the innovative and exciting scheme and has said:

That is a great shame because all hon. Members probably accept that the state has a role to support and empower people who often find it difficult to manage on their own. Since we have had free healthy school meals for all children, no one has been seen as any different and all children have enjoyed the food. The take-up rates for the healthy food have increased phenomenally.

Andrew Selous: Is the hon. Lady aware that some local authorities get round the problem that she identifies by giving the children swipe cards? If everyone has a swipe card, children who need free school meals can get them without identifying themselves as such, which lessens problems of stigma.

Ms Johnson: I do not have a problem with swipe cards, but society needs to address head-on the problems of unhealthy eating in all our communities. It
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is not just poorer children who eat junk food. Children from better-off families often eat it, too. They might have money available to go to Burger King, or wherever they choose to go to buy burgers or fish and chips. We need to recognise that we all have an investment in our young people getting a healthy start in life, and we should do that through healthy free school meals.

Lyn Brown: Does my hon. Friend agree that giving free school meals to all school children would help to deal with those who are not entitled to them, but whose families live on low incomes? That is one way for schools to ensure that all children have a healthy start in life, and the energy and material to think and work well at school.

Ms Johnson: My hon. Friend is right and makes an important point about those children whose families are just above the benefit level.

On the alliance that has formed in the city of Hull between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, in the recent local elections, the Leader of the Opposition talked about “Vote blue, get green,” but in Hull it is “Vote yellow, get blue.” That is how it is in Hull these days. The lack of vision shared by the Liberal Democrats and the Tories—the lack of insight into what joined-up thinking can do to change the long-term health of one of our poorest communities—is a disgrace.

In the statement on pensions, the Liberal Democrats made lots of comments on how they disapprove of means-testing. I was struck by how ironic it is that they take the view that they do in the city of Hull. Perhaps that is indicative of the franchised approach that they take to national Government and local government. The two do not seem to marry.

If Hull loses the pilot scheme, we will not have the hard evidence that will come out of the project if it continues for the full three years and beyond, and we will not see the changes that can be made. Professor Derek Colquhoun of Hull university’s centre for education studies is involved in looking at the project and giving an opinion on how well it is doing. He says:

According to researchers, early indications are that children’s readiness to learn is already improving. That is certainly my experience of talking to teachers in primary schools. They have seen a real change in the behaviour and willingness to learn of some of the young people in their classes.

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, is a leading participant in the campaign for free school meals. He says:

He goes on to call for Scottish Ministers to listen to the facts and follow what is happening in Hull.

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Mr. Alan Reid: The hon. Lady mentioned Scotland. Is she aware that her colleagues in the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament voted against free school meals? The Labour party is not universally in favour of free school meals for everybody.

Ms Johnson: I am speaking on behalf of my constituency and the decision of the Labour council to introduce an innovative project and pilot to see whether we can achieve the benefits that all the agencies involved—the primary care trusts, the local authorities, and the voluntary and community sector—think will happen if it is seen through. Hull is leading the way. It is a great shame if we cannot get cross-party consensus that the pilot should carry on. We can learn a lot from Hull. It has led the way on a number of things. I could go through the list, but I will not. The Liberal Democrat council has not introduced a motion in full council, but it has certainly suggested that it will try to force through a return to means-tested school meals for children whose families are on benefits. That is a great pity, and the Liberal Democrats should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

3.55 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Following last year’s report by the Science and Technology Committee on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a number of issues have still to be resolved. First, when will the Department of Health release its report on the reform of the outdated Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990? When will a joint Committee of both Houses report on the scientific, medical and social changes relating to abortion since 1967? Despite huge advances in the scientific understanding of foetal development and serious abuses of the Abortion Act 1967, there is no mechanism to protect the foetus.

It is nearly 40 years since the 1967 Act was passed and science has made tremendous advances. Public opinion has changed, partly as a result of huge improvements in the imaging of the unborn child. Parliament is not reluctant to grapple with the issue. A communications research survey showed that nine in 10 MPs want the abortion law to be reviewed continuously in the light of advances in medical science. There is a political will to act—in the last election, all three party leaders called for a review of the timing of abortion—so why has action not been taken? Should we wait cynically for the next election? Are human life and dignity to be held so cheap?

Thirdly, animal-human hybrids and chimeras are not science fiction. They have crept up on an unsuspecting and unwelcoming public, and have caused worldwide concern. Indeed, the issue was raised in the European Parliament last week. The Donaldson report of 2000 stated that those creations are not covered by the 1990 Act, and rightly recommended prohibition. However, some people at the HFEA and the Department of Health want to legalise them for research purposes. Dark forces are plotting to make animal-human hybrids and chimeras acceptable. In its consultation on the 1990 Act, the Department of Health asked for views on

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The HFEA’s clinical and scientific advances group and its ethics and law committee have been asked to provide advice on the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for research. I dispute the right of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to provide advice on animal eggs and non-gamete human cells or to become involved in non-fertility matters. As its name suggests, its remit extends only to human gametes and embryos. It is not empowered to play with such monstrous propositions. It would be dangerous to extend its remit, because it is an undemocratic, unaccountable and self-interested body. It is time that the House brought those three supremely important issues—indeed, they are issues of life itself—under democratic control. I urge the Minister to pass that message on to the Prime Minister and the Department of Health, and to obtain answers on those three points.

In my constituency, much is happening. A major proposal to import a full 5 per cent. of the national energy requirement would result in ships on the Thames transhipping gas via Canvey island to provide energy for the national grid. My local paper said that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was encouraging

He appeared to be putting improper pressure on our local authority, and in some ways trying to bypass the usual planning procedures. That caused great public concern.

I respectfully say to the right hon. Gentleman, who is a good man, three things. First, we can accept no increase whatever in risk for Canvey people. Secondly, the matter must be brought to a public inquiry at the earliest possible moment—that is, immediately the council rejects it. Finally, we should do and say nothing that might increase the blight of our beautiful island, Canvey island, and of people’s homes on that island.

I turn to the problem of antisocial behaviour. Castle Point has great kids. They are hardworking, they have great integrity, they are honourable, and their parents and our community as a whole can be enormously proud of them. They are our future, but they are spoiled by a few yobs who, fuelled by drink and with growing-up difficulties like we all had, cause mayhem for our community. They are making life for individuals miserable and intolerable.

Canvey island is plagued by antisocial behaviour and worse, especially in the King George park area. Groups or gangs of 50, sometimes 100 and, in recent weeks, 150 kids have been gathering together, showing off and causing mayhem. Cars have been badly damaged and one, I believe, written off. Fences and walls have been vandalised. There have been serious fights in the street and people have been hurt. Whole neighbourhoods feel under siege, businesses are hit hard and are suffering, the town centre is becoming a no-go area for decent people, and quality of life is being destroyed.

People feel intimidated, traumatised and afraid. People are standing in their front gardens late on a Friday night to try and ward off these gangs of youths. That is intolerable. It should not be happening. An evil racial element has again—it happened a few years ago—crept in, and must certainly be stopped.

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