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15 Nov 2006 : Column 59

David Maclean: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There might be scope to attach some form of amendment to deal with that in the consumer Bill that will be presented to the House later. However, I am unsure whether new regulation of this type of industry is necessary, and I do not think that we should rush down that route if it is not necessary. An amendment to the criminal law might be what is required to deal with this, or amendments to Acts on company directors.

Mr. Salmond: I do not disagree with anything that the right hon. Gentleman says on Farepak; many of my constituents are involved. However, we cannot forget the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry for regulation. There are clear indications from the collapse in share prices of the companies concerned that something was seriously amiss many months before the collapse happened. During those months, my constituents and the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents were still putting money into Farepak.

David Maclean: The hon. Gentleman makes another valid point. That matter should be investigated. However, as the DTI is investigating Farepak or European Home Retail, I am not sure who will investigate its role. That could be a job for a Select Committee of this House.

What happened is obvious to everyone. The public were paying their money in, and the last cheque was cashed 15 minutes before Farepak went into liquidation. There was deliberate siphoning of money—money laundering. I hope that the criminal law of this country is sufficient to deal with that. If not, I would prefer to deal with it by making amendments to the criminal law in this Session of Parliament, rather than by taking up some of the other suggestions.

I wish now to turn to my final point, and I shall choose my words very carefully. Yesterday, I attended a briefing by the excellent organisation, Policy Exchange, which looked at, among other things, radical Islamism. I make a clear distinction between Muslim fundamentalist clerics who may feel about, and hold, the tenets of their faith passionately and strongly, and the political creed of radical Islamism, which wishes to see the destruction of all secular society, the imposition of sharia law and the imposition of the Islamic creed across the world. A clear distinction must be made between political agitators and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt 30 or 40 years ago, and those who just have strong religious beliefs.

There are many points that can be made about this issue, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), who raised this issue in a very thoughtful way—much more thoughtfully than I ever could—last week. However, there is just one remaining small point that I wish to share with the House. I heard an excellent speech yesterday by Mr. Ali, a Labour councillor in, I think, Tower Hamlets; I apologise if I have got his London district wrong. He made the point that he, as an elected councillor of many years’ standing, has been sidelined by all Governments because we now listen to faith communities instead.

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Mr. Ali said that, although it might be easier to do so, it is wrong for parliamentarians and for Governments to talk to faith communities, instead of dealing with the problem in question by talking to the Bangladeshi, Indian or Sikh community. It is much easier to lump them together and say, “We’ll talk to the faith community. That prevents us from making mistakes: from perhaps saying the wrong thing and getting into deep trouble by incorrectly attributing certain attitudes or views to a certain sector of society.” He said, “Can we please get back to dealing with the individual ethnic communities in my constituency, because the problems that we face in those communities cannot all be lumped together under the heading of a faith community?” Crucially, he said that, once we start talking to faith communities, we give credence to the “mad mullahs” of this world—those are my words, not his—and to the religious leaders, rather than to we, the elected politicians. That was probably one of the best speeches that I have heard in many years. What that Labour councillor had to say was a revelation.

I share that with the House because it highlights a very good point that we need to address. As we look at vitally important terrorism legislation in the next few months, we need to bear it in mind that we have got to get back in touch with the hearts and minds of those communities. If we are to influence the hearts and minds of youngsters who may be tempted, for whatever reason, to become radicals and to destroy themselves and others—if we are to get at them—we must not sideline the political and other leaders of such communities by talking only to the so-called faith leaders, many of whom are self-appointed. Let us not sideline those local politicians; let us deal with them and give them the status that they deserve in their own communities, because they have been elected. That could be a start in winning the hearts and minds of some of the young radicals who may be the terrorists of the future.

5.53 pm

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): On looking at the Queen’s Speech, the first thought that goes through my mind is, “Is all this legislation necessary, and how will these Bills help my constituents?” Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) had to say, I doubt whether we really need yet another local government Bill. Hardly a year goes by without further changes being foisted on local councils, which then find that they are spending more and more time dealing with change, rather than concentrating on delivering front-line services.

The local government Bill in the Queen’s Speech was preceded by a White Paper that suggests more devolution to the localities, although—to echo the point just made by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean)—not necessarily to local government; however, it still prescribes the changes in local government structure and management that can be made. Despite the lack of demand and the experience so far, it appears that there is to be yet another attempt to manoeuvre local authorities in the direction of elected mayors.

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How can we accept that more power is to be devolved from the centre, when the centre is being so prescriptive in the direction that change should take? Surely the essence of local government is that councillors should be able to develop systems that suit their area. That may result in different systems in different localities, but so what? Local government should develop by learning from the experiences of others and, where appropriate, by adapting what it learns to its own areas and circumstances. I hope that the local government Bill outlined in the Queen’s Speech will recognise the valuable contribution our locally elected representatives make to our society and the value of diversity and choice, and show a little more flexibility than has hitherto been shown.

There is also to be yet another attempt to complete the modernisation and reform of the House of Lords. In answering a question from me on this issue in 2003, the Prime Minister said, among other things:

an elected and an appointed House—

Yet the Leader of the House is suggesting that just such a proposal will be brought to the House early in the new Session. Of course, the Labour party manifesto promised the completion of reform and to produce a more representative second Chamber, but that can be achieved without the introduction of elected Members, as I hope Parliament will see.

However, if the reforms as outlined so far by the Leader of the House are pursued, I hope that the people will be given the chance to vote on them in a referendum. After all, if referendums were right for Scotland, Wales and the devolved regional assemblies, such a major constitutional change, as outlined by the Leader of the House, should also be decided by the people. The question then would be, “Will people vote for another 500 or so paid politicians, with their expenses, secretaries, researchers and so on?” That was the simplistic argument that, among other things, defeated the attempt to introduce regional government to the north-east. In my view, that defeat was bad news for the north-east, but it will have been very good news if it prevents the disaster of an elected second Chamber.

We have recently had some good news in the north-east. According to the UK competitiveness index, the north-east’s competitiveness rose by 3.1 per cent. during 2005-06, which should be compared with a fall of 4.1 per cent. in the south-east. According to the report’s authors, that is

However, the north-east is still at the bottom of the table, so a lot remains to be done. In particular, we need further to encourage the growth of businesses and jobs in the region. To a large degree, that will depend on good transport links throughout the region and on our links with other regions. We have been running a “go for jobs” campaign, which has the support of all the partners in the north-east. The impetus for that campaign was the Highways Agency’s hampering of
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progress by restricting development, on the ground of increased congestion—the infamous “article 14 orders”.

There is no doubt that congestion is a problem, and it is particularly acute on the A1-Gateshead western bypass, where the road often resembles a car park, rather than a motorway. Of major concern in our region is the fact that, while the Highways Agency argues that it has a responsibility to relieve and to avoid congested roads, it has done precious little to improve our roads over too many years. Indeed, I first raised this issue with the then Conservative transport Minister, the late John Watts, back in the 1980s, and have been banging on about it ever since.

The Queen’s Speech refers to a Bill to tackle road congestion and to improve public transport, and the north-east looks to that Bill to address seriously, at last, the very serious problems that we face. While it is true to say that we cannot build our way out of congestion, it needs to be recognised that road transport will nevertheless be a major feature of our country’s social and economic activity for the foreseeable future.

The nation’s motorway network should constitute a proper and fully integrated system of free-flowing arteries for social activity and economic development. At the moment, the north-east remains cut off, with no continuous motorway links north, south or west to the rest of the system. Indeed, there is not a single mile of three-lane motorway anywhere in the region. It is grossly unfair and discriminatory that we should be so deprived, and this problem must be resolved if our region is to make more rapid progress economically and socially.

One way further to reduce the north-south divide is to reduce journey times between the regions, and in this regard high-speed rail is vital.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am listening very carefully to what my hon. Friend has to say about the north-east, but does he agree that his suggestions regarding the development of transport will be hampered by the ludicrous proposal coming out in the new year called the regional spatial strategy, which has more in common with Soviet Russia than with modern-day Britain?

Mr. Clelland: My hon. Friend makes his point well.

I cannot believe that by the end of the 21st century high-speed inter-city links will still consist of hundreds of tonnes of metal trundling along on steel rails. As an electrical engineering apprentice in the 1960s, I learned about the linear motor. It is a concept that was invented in Britain and, in simple terms, involves cutting open an electric motor and laying it flat, so that instead of a rotor going round and round, a flat panel moves along horizontally, supported and propelled by magnetism. Maglev was born.

The introduction of maglev in the UK is way past its time. It could have formed an ultra-modern rapid transport system for the UK, had any Government been brave and futuristic enough to bite the bullet. Such a system of high-speed travel, with trains travelling at speeds of up to 300 mph, would be a major contribution to reducing regional disparities, bringing prosperity to the north and cooling the overheated and
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congested south. A Government for the 21st century will surely take up the challenge. I want that to be a Labour Government.

In the meantime, we are led to believe that the way forward is to discourage motorists from using their cars so much. Local authorities are to be given the power and incentive to introduce road pricing as a way of relieving congestion and tackling global warming. However, people still have to get around their local areas. Without a viable, attractive and affordable public transport alternative, road pricing will merely end up as another unpopular tax. Encouraging indications are coming from Ministers. They are finally accepting that local transport has been decimated by the privatisation of bus services and that without some form of local control over buses, the system of local transport that is needed to attract motorists out of their cars will not exist.

We are given to understand that Ministers may take powers in the proposed Bill to run a number of pilot schemes to test alternative systems. I should like to volunteer Tyne and Wear for a franchising system that would put the power to decide the routes on which buses will run in the hands of local transport authorities. Our case is built on two facts. First, we have the metro, which needs a properly integrated system to operate to its full efficiency and provide the comprehensive services that people in the area need and deserve. Secondly, our major industrial and commercial areas are badly in need of the kind of congestion relief with which a good public transport service can help.

I notice a line in the Queen’s Speech that says:

That is of course the national rolling out of the local scheme, which currently restricts travel to local authority boundaries. I welcome that, but the scheme that the Government introduced last year has cost Tyne and Wear dear, with £7 million of cuts, and is in danger of costing us £2 million to £3 million in cuts this year. My question to the Government, which I shall ask when the Bill comes before the House and throughout its passage, is: may we have our money back?

Another area in urgent need of review is reform of the welfare system, to which the Queen’s Speech also referred. I should like to pay tribute to the huge contribution made to our society by those who care for people who are less fortunate than others. Our Government have a good record on that, the best example of which is perhaps the introduction of the minimum wage. However, a huge anomaly has arisen as a result of the latest—and welcome—increase in the minimum hourly rate. Many of our fellow citizens, whose incomes are suppressed because they care for a disabled, elderly or terminally ill relative, are in receipt of carer’s allowance. However, that allowance is paid only if income is less than £84 a week. Because the increase in the minimum wage has taken some carers marginally over £84—sometimes by as little as a few pence—they have lost the whole of the £46 a week allowance.

The Department for Work and Pensions is looking into the issue, and I am hopeful of a successful
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outcome, but it highlights the kind of anomaly that can arise when a well-meaning policy does not keep pace with the rest of the system. Without the millions of carers up and down the country who look after sick, disabled and elderly people, the NHS and social services would have to step in, and what would the cost be then? Something must be done in this new Session to correct the system. Carer’s allowance should be reduced gradually, in direct proportion to the amount by which the earnings limit is breached, and the limit itself should be increased to take into account wage inflation and increases in the minimum wage.

I welcome the proposal to introduce a climate change Bill. The issue must take priority over all others, as it threatens our very survival, but we cannot resolve it alone, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. Climate change recognises no national boundaries. Crucially, there is little sign that countries such as India and China, with their fast growing economies, are keen to co-operate. It is difficult to argue the case with those countries when the United States, which is responsible for between one quarter and one fifth of global emissions, is still reluctant fully to join the fight, although I hope that we might see some progress there, with the political changes of recent weeks.

Whatever we might think about our Government’s performance and no matter how good we are at doing our bit in the UK, without international agreements and serious action by developed and emerging economies alike, the problem cannot be resolved. In the meantime, major steps in tackling climate change here must be energy efficiency and energy conservation, waste management and waste avoidance, in Government, industry and the home.

In that regard, we need more initiatives such as the Newcastle and Gateshead warm zones, which help to insulate homes and introduce energy conservation, while keeping people warm. There should be less packaging and more biodegradable products. I hope that the climate change Bill will not only move us further towards playing our full part in the struggle for the future of our planet, but do so in a way that takes all our people with us, on the basis of a proper understanding of the problem and why each and every one of us has our part to play. I should like to commend Gateshead council in that regard, on winning a prize at the UK Fleet Heroes awards, after reducing carbon emissions by 300 tonnes last year.

Science must play a major part in finding less polluting alternatives and more efficient energy sources. It is no good telling people that they can no longer travel and expecting that to be an acceptable long-term solution. New, cleaner and more efficient sources of energy must form a large part of the answer. Much more research and development is needed to find and develop them.

Other welcome proposals in the Queen’s Speech include those to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. I hope that when we do so we shall give proper recognition to the contributions made by the voluntary victim support units up and down the country.

Finally, I welcome the Government’s determination to find a lasting solution to the Israel-Palestine problem and to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
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There can be no doubt that a lasting settlement that brings peace between the peoples of Israel and Palestine will be a major step forward in bringing about peace across the middle east and, I hope, the wider world.

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