Our starting point is that, at the heart of the relationship between service personnel and the chain of command, is that the chain of command is responsible for investigating wrongsand remedying them.[ Official Report, House of Lords,12 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 393, 410.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring(Dr. Fox), the shadow Secretary of State, told the Minister of State on 13 June, when the Blake report was discussed, that we wanted the proposed commissioner to have a military background and, therefore, an understanding of the pressures on the chain of command.
I am sorry that the Government have not accepted the recommendation, settling only for an appropriate person. Given that the Government accepted that the director of service prosecutions should be someone with military experience, and given the huge importance of this appointment, I commendwith all the power at my disposalto the Minister the idea that the appointee should have a military background. I accept that they cannot be a serving officer, but will he tell the House the kind of experience that will be possessed by the ideal candidate?
Mr. Kevan Jones: In Committee, I tabled new clause 24 which would have introduced an independent service commissioner and I warmly welcome the amendment, which will achieve that aim. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who piloted the early stages of this Bill and was important in having this amendment tabled. I also wish to pay tribute to the Deepcut and Beyond families and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) who has campaigned on the issue.
Where the Commissioner is not satisfied with the outcome, despite the advice tendered, the Commissioner could intervene in the hearing of a complaint at the next level of redress. In an important case, the Commissioner should be able to institute legal proceedings to set aside legally flawed decisions not to prosecute.
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): The Government are moving in the right direction and making progress towards what Nicholas Blake outlined in his review. We welcome that, but we do not believe that the amendment goes far enough. The principles that Blake set out should be adhered to more closely, and we hope that the Government will reconsider their approach in the future.
We do not accept the contention from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) that the measure would break the chain of command. We think that it links in with that chain, but that it should be reviewed at some future date.
Derek Twigg: I am conscious of the issues raised in connection with this amendment. I am sure that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) will correct me if I have misunderstood his argument, but I assure him that seeking redress does not mean mounting challenges to disciplinary decisions. Such challenges are matters for appeal, whereas redress has to do with complaints about any aspect of service.
Mr. Howarth: I understand entirely that the commissioner will be dealing with complaints from soldiers, sailors and airmen about bullying, harassment and so on, and that there must be the independent element that the Blake review sought. However, it is very important that the commissioner, whoever that turns out to be, is more than just the appropriate person: it would be helpful if, like the Director of Service Prosecutions, he were someone with an understanding of the services. I accept that he cannot be a serving military person, but I submit that giving that role to a complete outsider could be difficult for the armed forces, which would not achieve what we all want.
Derek Twigg: I accept that the hon. Gentleman has strong views about who the commissioner should be. The independence of the post is crucial, and it is important that we put that on record. I am happy to listen to any comments that he has to make, but the important thing is to get the best person for the job.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) asked, in relation to function 2, whether the commissioner could recommend further steps to be taken, where that is necessary and practical. The recommendation in the Blake report relates to how a
complaint is investigated. It is not the intended function of the commissioner to intervene in the handling of an individual complaint, or to say how it should be investigated. The commissioner will look at how complaints are handled generally, and to include his findings in the annual report.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham also asked, in relation to function 3, whether the commissioner could institute legal proceedings and set aside legally flawed decisions. The commissioners function relates to the redress of an individual grievance. The Bill rightly gives him no function in the area of prosecutions. As the Government said in reply to the Blake report, the question of whether to prosecute for a serious offence must be for the independent Director of Service Prosecutions. If the commissioner considers that the possibility of prosecution was not being sufficiently considered, there is nothing to prevent him from making his views known to the Secretary of State. However, the decision on prosecutions must be for the Director of Service Prosecutions.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con):
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It arises out of the timetabling of proceedings today. I seek your guidance as to how the House might better deal with serious and important issues. The Armed Forces Bill, which we have debated over a long period, will set the framework for the disciplinary arrangements for Her Majestys armed forces, who are in theatre as we speak, for the next generation at least. It is disappointing that today we have inevitably had to spend quite a long time on the issue of first world war pardons. Hon. Members on both sides of the House wanted to discuss it, but it has inevitably left us short of time for other important matters. I do not think that we were desperately short of time, but I do not think that either Front-Bench or
Back-Bench Members were other than economical with the time that we had available.
It seems a shame that we are locked into such rigid arrangements, Mr. Speaker. How might we introduce, by agreement between both sides, some element of flexibility to allow the House to deal with matters? All of us were anxious to allow the debate to flow; it was not a question of anyone taking up unnecessary time. I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker: The House will have heard the hon. Gentlemans concerns. I must be bound by the decision that the House has made regarding the programme motion. These things are negotiated by the usual channels. There are some things that the Speaker interferes in and other things that he does not. I do not interfere with the negotiations of the usual channels, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have a word with his Chief Whip. It may be helpful.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I rise this evening to present a petition that was gathered by my constituent Mrs. Teresa Kulkarni. I had an Adjournment debate last night, as you know, Mr. Speaker, and I pointed out that Teresa Kulkarni raised a staggering 129,387 signatures on her petition, which was delivered to No. 10 Downing street last Wednesday. I do not have all the signatures here, but I have a portion of them. The petition says that the undersigned believe that freely available fireworks present danger and nuisance to people, property and animals. They believe that the suffering that they cause and the cost to emergency services and individuals are totally avoidable. Although they believe this, they do not wish to prevent the enjoyment of traditional festivals; therefore the petitioners request that the House of Commons brings in legislation so that
1. Fireworks are restricted to licensed displays only at fixed times of the year
2. To include garden fireworks in the restricted category
3. To reduce the decibel limit to a maximum of 85 db for all fireworks
4. To make it illegal to use or possess fireworks without a valid licence.
Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It would be impossible to have any debate on social housing without recognising the fact that we have spent the past 30 years in a state of upheaval. Social housing has been in constant flux. At the same time, there has been massive change in the social attitudes and needs of the people of our country. We have seen the evolutionof one-parent families, the development of single occupancy and the breakdown of traditional family frameworks. At the same time, we have seen the sell-off of social housing and the sad failure to match demand with adequate supply. We have seen the development of various forms of public ownership and private ownership, which has led to serious political differences right across the board.
I should not have to ask whether our attention has been diverted from the real task of providing good-quality affordable homes for people to live in while we have been discussing the ownership of those homes. It is against that background that I want to bring some good news to the House. In Gateshead, the borough in which my constituency lies, the council still has strategic responsibility for housing. However, in 2004 it set up a housing company as an arms length management organisationan ALMOwhich has responsibility for housing offices, neighbourhood relations, rent and income, leasehold services, refurbishments, of which there are many good examples, repairs, maintenance and other housing management services.
With a great big agenda that included spending a quarter of a billion pounds to improve the houses of the people of Gateshead, why has the council produced the Gateshead young persons housing plan? There are three reasons: first, it is absolutely the right thing to do; secondly, the council was instructed by the Audit Commission that if it wanted to improve from a two-star to a three-star ALMO, it would have to do much more work with that age group; and, thirdly, the plan is in line with a Government-driven initiative for councils to develop plans for children and young persons.
The key to the plan is wide liaison and consultation, starting with the company itself. It talked first and foremost to the 1,335 young people aged between 16 and 24 who already held tenancies. It worked with the young womens outreach project, with youth information services and, critically, with the Gateshead youth assembly, positively led by Valerie Ender who is a credit to her region and to the young people she looks after. The company worked with the Connexions team on career progress and with the Gateshead children and young peoples partnership and the teenage parents partnership. It worked with Gateshead college, the Hit Squad and Skills for Peopleyoung disabled persons groupsand the learning support group at Gateshead college, which also supports disabled people. The black and minority ethnic forum was involved, as were the Gateshead Bangladeshi and Muslim societies; and most importantly, the company worked with the Gateshead youth offending team.
Working with young people to provide excellent homes, communities and housing services for the tenants of tomorrow.
That vision was based on values that were customer-focused, innovative and professional. The company involves customers in all its work; it is honest, accountable and transparent and shows respect and care for the people for whom and with whom it works.
A massive commitment has been made to the organisations employees; they are involved and their work is celebrated. The company is positive and responsive and tries its best at all times to achieve the very best for the people for whom it works. Its employees are well motivated, well trained and committed. As a listening and learning organisation, the company embraces equality and involves the whole community.
The aim of the plan is clear: to improve the chances of young people in Gateshead and allow them to find out about living on their own. A key part of that process is that young people actually work for the company. The company makes it easy for young people to work with it and to join its boardan issue to which I shall be happy to return later.
The important thing is to work with young people on the ground and find out who they are. About 46,000 people in Gateshead are aged under 19 and 29,000 of them are of school age. Fifty-nine per cent. of young people said that improved housing would make their lives and neighbourhoods better. Ninety per cent. of children born in Gateshead live in a house or bungalow, but 12 per cent. of them are likely to be living in overcrowded conditions. Five per cent. of young people have a health problem or disability. Almost 2.5 per cent. of them are from an ethnic minority background.
There is positive news for young people in Gateshead. Youth crime has fallen for the past three years. Only 8 per cent. of 16 to 19-year-olds are unemployed or not in further education or training; that is too many, but we are working on it. Our GCSE results are among the top 10 in the country and the improvements since 1997 mean that we are among the besta massive plus for the children and those who care for them. The percentage of young people leaving school at 16 with no qualifications has gone down from 8 per cent. in 2001 to 4.5 per cent. in 2005. Under-18 pregnancy rates are down by 22 per cent., and that is the biggest reduction in the north-east; it is far better than the national average drop of 11 per cent.
The situation is not perfect, although hon. Members might think so, given the way in which I have spoken. Local young people face problems, as do young people across the country. Some face issues of homelessness or rooflessness; some do not have enough money coming in; some have poor or no credit ratings, or have no bank account. They may face unemployment and low pay. They have to abide by the housing benefit rules for under-25s, and they may not know how to use housing services or get help. Rents are very high in the private sector, and young people may have no furniture, may never have lived independently before, and may have absolutely no experience of being a tenant.
The Gateshead Housing Company went deeper in its work with young people. In February and March of
this year, it consulted widely with various groups of young people, who realised that the key issue was that they needed more information and guidance. To provide that information and guidance, the housing company committed itself to promoting more effectively the housing services available directly to young people. It agreed to provide appropriate information as and when it was needed, so that young people could make informed decisions when considering where to live. It also agreed to improve access to information and advice about housing services, and as part of that, it developed a multilingual service, and a service for people with sight impairments.
The housing company has provided a great deal of help and support. It realises that maintaining a tenancy is not easy, particularly for young people, who may never have faced that worry before. The accessible information has now been provided, and people are using it. A key part of the process is the MyPad website, which is advertised on the card that I have in my hand. It is a website for, and developed by, young people; they are responsible for it, and it provides access to information.
More than 80 per cent. of young people clearly said that it would help them if they had access to IT services, so that they could find out more. The housing company has responded to that positively. There is a clear need to work with other agencies, including those that I listed earlier. Such work is being developed, and the housing company is taking that seriously. It is identifying individuals who will be the key persons working with its partners, so that there is no blurring of who does what.
There is a clear problem with housing, and thereis a lack of both permanent and temporary accommodation. The sad thing about the companys plan is that it does not provide us with one brick, one key to a door, or one extra house; however, it does give shape to what must be done. It is accepted that waiting lists are too long, and that it takes too long to get a property. It is accepted that not enough council accommodation is available in the areas where young people want to live. Young people who are offered accommodation often find that it is outside the areas where they want to live, which means that they will be away from their family and their support network. There is a lack of emergency accommodation for young people, too. Some of the housing stock is not at its best, although we are in the middle of a massive refurbishment programme. On some estates, the paintwork on houses is in poor condition. Problem neighbours are a concern for young people, too, and the repair service is perceived to carry out poor quality repairs, and to take too long to complete them.