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Mr. Andrew Turner:
Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the greatest problems that the Government face in persuading Opposition Members, and perhaps some of their own Back Benchers, of the veracity of their evidence is the lack of veracity in the evidence presented by the Prime Minister in this place over our
involvement in Iraq? The Prime Minister has lost trust, and that is why we find it hard to trust Government members?
John Bercow: Regrettably, that is true. I shall not get into the wider debate about the war. I supported it then and would do so again. I am one of the Opposition Members who has not been quick to attack the Prime Minister, because I still believe that although he distorted the evidence he was being fundamentally honest. I know that I am in a small minority of people in this country in continuing to subscribe to that view, but I do so.
Nevertheless, the burden of my hon. Friends intervention is absolutely right. It is because Ministers have lost public trust that they are unable to persuade us of their evidence case now. Moreover, they are even unable to persuade us that they are sincere in their motivation and intent. On a matter of such profound public importance to our national security, that is extremely regrettable, but it is nobody elses fault. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is the Governments fault; they must accept responsibility accordingly.
The second feature of the Governments populist-authoritarian, headline-grabbing and essentially soundbite-over-substance approach is their stance on identity cards. Let us be clear about the basis on which Ministers first came forward with the idea. They said that ID cards, which were eventually but not initially to become compulsory, were necessary. That was argument by advocacy rather than by evidence. As long ago as 1783, William Pitt observed:
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.
As the hon. Member for Winchester noted in his powerful speech, it is particularly pertinent that the Government keep shifting tack on ID cards. One minute, the main raison dêtre of proposed legislation is to counter terrorism, the next it is to tackle immigration, and then it is to reduce benefit fraud. To each of those rather weak cases, there is a cogent and unanswerable response. Whenever the Government are caught out on their flimsy or non-existent evidence base, they move to a different position.
We also know that the cards will be very expensive and that the Governments estimate, even though it is now a little higher than it was, is vastly lower than that of virtually every other authoritative and reputable commentator in the field. The Government now say that the cards will cost a little over £5 billion, but others suggest that the cost will be nearer to £20 billion.
The Government are proposing to change fundamentally the historic relationship between the state and citizen on no serious evidence base at all. They want to introduce identity cards as a matter of public policy, at a cost that they do not accurately calculate, for a benefit that they cannot quantify, at a risk to the continuing liberty of the British citizen that they dare not admit. That is thoroughly unacceptable. If, with anti-terrorist legislation and identity cards, the Government abandon cherished liberties in pursuit of enhanced security on the very weak evidence base currently available to them, they will end up with this country enjoying neither liberty nor the enhanced security that they seek, and that would be a pitiful state of affairs.
There is a third topic on which the hon. Member for Winchester touched that is emblematic of the Governments headline-grabbing but ultimately rather insubstantial approach to public policy: their attitude to the prison system. We spend a little under £2 billion a year on the prison estate. I invite Members in all parties at least to accept that when something is as expensive as that, it is incumbent on us to consider the fundamental question whether we are getting value for money. It is not a matter of saying that prison has no merit or that prison is perfect. It is a matter of looking at the issue dispassionately and seeing where we are doing well and where we could do a great deal better. In particular, it is up to us to ask whether we are justified in going ahead with vast new plans for an increased number of prisons and prison places on the strength of what the evidence so far tells us.
John Bercow: I do not agree. I know that my hon. Friend will always be in favour of more prisons, harsher sentences, tougher treatment and antiquated extreme populist authoritarianism. Of my hon. Friends position on the matter I am in no doubt whatever. I do not think that it is a good idea.
The evidence on recidivism is clear: 61 per cent. of adult offenders leaving prison are reconvicted of an offence within two years. Among youth offenders the figure is 73 per cent. and among male offenders of peak age, between 15 and 18, the figure is 82 per cent. The truth is that we are sending thousands and thousands of people through the revolving door of the criminal justice systemthe same people over and over again. People are going into prison uneducated, untrained, unqualified, untreated and unreformed, and coming out of prison uneducated, untrained, unqualified, untreated and unreformed. If there are those who think that that is a thoroughly intelligent way to conduct public policy, I would politely suggest to them that that is a greater commentary on them than it is on the merits of the policy.
We need decent speech and language therapy in prisons, and we do not have it. We must accept that there is a vast problem of mental illness in prisons. We must acknowledge that about 60 per cent. of prisoners are functionally illiterate. If we are to give them the chance to convert, to reform and to make a constructive contribution to society, it is important that we provide resources for the purpose. We have to tackle drug addiction and do something about tackling the phenomenon of alcoholism in prison. Populist slogans and easy mantras might satisfy narrow partisan audiences, but they do not fulfil the responsibility of Government and of parties that wish to get into government properly to discharge their obligations and to try to tackle these issues.
The final subject on which I shall say a few words is that of the forthcoming mental health Bill. I said at the outset of my remarks that I thought that nowhere was
populist authoritarianism more true than in relation to Home Office legislation and that which may not have come from but bore the hallmark of the Home Office. My concern is that with the proposed reform of mental health legislation there is an intended increased focus on locking uppotentially incarcerating for a substantial periodpeople with severe personality disorders who have not committed any offence whatsoever.
I know that there is much subtlety in this debate and that a good deal of line-by-line consideration is still to be undertaken, but I appeal to those on the Treasury Bench seriously to consider the detailed evidence and passionate representations of the Mental Health Alliance and others. Such people are genuinely concerned that the way in which the Government intend to reform the treatability clause will mean that a good many people with potentially untreatable conditions will, almost on the basis of the precautionary principle, be locked up.
The approach might be: if in doubt, put public safety first, satisfy the screaming headline writers of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Sun and the Daily Mirror, and put people in what is effectively a prison environment. I put it to right hon. and hon. Members in all parties that we have a fundamental obligation to the most vulnerable people in the community to do better. We must try to remove the stigma of mental illness and to improve the community services available to people with mental illness. We must not sign up to or reinforce the stereotypes of those who wish to do such people down.
I want this Government, in their remaining year or two, to get rid of their obsession with soundbites, reaction and media headlines and to try to grapple intelligently and constructively with the great public policy questions of the day. If they do not do so, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and his team certainly will.
I warmly welcome the two new transport Bills announced in the Gracious Speech. My constituents very much welcome free local concessionary travel for older and disabled people. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and I worked with the seven district councils in County Durham to make the existing scheme a county-wide scheme. When the scheme was eventually introduced, it made it a great deal more effective and useful for my constituents. I am pleased that the concessionary bus travel Bill will take the scheme to a national level.
I want to concentrate my remarks on the road transport Bill, which I look forward to reading when it is published next year. Buses are important in my constituency and in many others. My constituency has a city centre at its core and about 25 surrounding villages, each of which has its own sense of community and spirit. Villages such as Kelloe, Bearpark, Esh Winning and Quarrington Hill would be lost without
the bus services that connect them not only to the city centre, but to the surrounding villages.
In the past year, bus service after bus service has been cut, or at least has been threatened with being cut, by bus operators. In the past couple of weeks, a bus operator has announced that a popular bus service in Newton Hall in my constituency will be stopped just before Christmas. In other cases, bus services have been threatened with withdrawal unless the county council comes up with public money to subsidise them.
Every time a bus service in Durham is cut, I receive dozens of letters from constituents telling me how vital the service is to their lives. They use the services to go shopping, and they need them to visit doctors and dentists and to keep in touch with family and friends. Bus services are too important to the many people who use them for it to be left up to bus operators to make decisions about them.
In the current regulatory framework, bus operators outside London have far too much powerin fact, they have all the power. Local authorities are left pleading with operators not to withdraw services and must subsidise any routes that the operators deem not to be commercially viable. If local authorities wish such routes to continue, they must subsidise them. That has happened increasingly in my constituency, placing an enormous strain on the county transport budget, but it simply cannot continue.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and her Select Committee on Transport for its excellent and insightful report on bus services in the United Kingdom. The report paints quite a depressing picture for those of us outside London. Bus ridership is declining, and has been doing so for the past 20 years or more. Between 2000 and 2005, the north-east experienced the biggest decrease in bus passenger numbers of any region, although I would point out that the biggest decrease happened between 1986 and 1997 and that in some areas bus patronage is increasing.
It is important that we try to learn the lessons from the best performing areas to improve services for all. I am therefore grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Department for telling us that they are willing to consider new approaches to providing bus services. I hope that that leads to a number of pilot projects, whereby different approaches can be tested to ensure that we have bus services that relate to local issues and needs.
In Durham, we have started that process. A couple of weeks ago, I held a public meeting about buses with my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). We asked people to do two things: to analyse what they thought was wrong with current bus services and to consider any ideas that they had to improve services. We also employed a social enterprise company, Durham Integrated Transport, to help us to look for a positive way forward. The problems that were identified are not new and were well documented in the Select Committee report. There were lots of examples of bus services being unreliable, and in some cases that resulted from congestion in the city centre. There was a strong demand for real-time displays, and for reliable services to be at the top of the bus operators agenda. The Select Committee also picked up on that point and
is pressing the Government, as I would, to consider the impact of congestion on the deliverability of bus services. Another problem identified was that of bunching, whereby a large number of buses arrive together and there are too many buses on popular routes. That appears to show a lack of planning and, perhaps, over-competition on some routes.
A huge problem, to which I alluded earlier, is the withdrawal of services, particularly from the more rural, outlying and isolated areas of the constituency. Declining bus services in areas such as mine impact directly on our social exclusion agenda. Without good bus services, lower-income people without a car can become socially excludedthey can certainly become isolated from the wider community. At the public meeting, we wanted to look forward and develop proposals that might improve the situation.
As the critical problem relates largely to feeder routes for mainline services, we concentrated on what might be achieved at community level to tackle the problem. Du-IT proposes a model where all public sector transport subsidies are pooled in a given area to support demand-led community transport options. Indeed, its model allows the community hub to give information on a whole range of public services and it wants the operators to be trained to build up extensive local knowledge. I hope that that is the sort of scheme that the Department will consider, as it would enable short journeys to the next village, the dentist or the doctor and could deliver people to the mainline routes, which could then remain viable for longer journeys.
A further problem that was identified in the public meeting and by the Select Committee was the lack of through ticketing and the lack of co-ordination of services. Powers to co-ordinate services must be given back to local authorities or passenger transport authorities, and through ticketing is clearly essential.
Let us be clearthe bus challenge is huge. Merely reversing short-term decline in bus services is not enough if we are going to meet our climate change challenge. We should not only make bus services work for those who need and rely on themthat is importantbut make them work and appeal to people who do not need to use them but would do so given the right circumstances.
It is difficult to get people out of their cars, but there might be two ways of doing it. We need to incentivise bus use by making services reliable, cheap, quick, safe and convenient and we need to disincentivise car use. Hon. Members might not know that Durham introduced the first congestion charging in the countrybefore London did so. It reduced car journeys in the area by 90 per cent. Congestion charging in London has reduced car journeys and moved people on to public transport, especially buses.
As I said, getting people out of cars is not easy and requires a huge cultural change. I am pleased that Durham is to be a pilot area for road pricing. Provided that we get a system that does not penalise car users in rural areas and concentrates on congested areas, it may help bring home to people the true cost, which I do not believe they fully appreciate, of using their cars, not only in monetary terms but in damage to the environment.
Strong local leadership in driving through local transport schemes is important, but, as the Du-IT model recognises, so is empowering local people. I hope that the road transport Bill will give local authorities more power to improve bus services in their areas because that is missing at the moment. All they can currently do is react to bus operators desires and whims. They need a proactive role in directing services and producing a strategy that can be implemented with local community support.
Bus services are not important only in themselves. We need good bus services to achieve our climate change targets, deal with social exclusion and as a demonstration of localism and of local leadership. I hope that the Bill will move us towards revitalising our services and reversing the decline in bus journeys that began under the Tory Administration and that we must now reverse.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), and I shall begin by taking my cue from her. Bus use has increased in my constituency through provision by Isle of Wight council, which has recently come under Conservative control, of free bus travel for pensioners at all hours and a 50p flat fare across the island for all under-19s in full-time education.
I shall continue with the transport theme brieflyI am glad to see the Minister of State for Transport on the Treasury Bench. Earlier, I mentioned the road pricing without roads pilot scheme on the Solent. I should like the Minister to take to the Department a request that has been made previously. Cheap, concessionary bus fare schemes for pensioners should not be limited to areas that happen to have roads. Pensioners need to cross the Solent to get to hospital and education institutions, shop and for all sorts of other reasons. They are just as needy as pensioners on the mainland. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he introduces the measure on concessionary fares.
I should like to concentrate mainly on Iraq and its impact on domestic terrorism, although the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) have stolen some of my thunder. The Prime Ministers position appears to be that the threat to this country from terrorism existed long before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and that his Governments foreign policy is, therefore, in no way responsible for the terrorist threat that we face.
Although it is true that the terrorist threat predates our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is ludicrous to suggest that those actions have not made it worse, given that suicide bombers have stated that they are at least partly motivated by what they see in those countries. There are two options: either the suicide bombers are telling the truth about their motives and the Prime Ministers assertions are wrong, or the bombers are lying in a deliberate, if posthumous attempt to undermine the Prime Minister. Which seems the more plausible?
We now know that the first Al-Qaida-related plot against the UK was the one we discovered and disrupted in November 2000 in Birmingham. A British citizen is currently serving a long prison sentence for plotting to detonate a large bomb in the UK. Let there be no doubt about this: the international terrorist threat to this country is not new. It began before Iraq, before Afghanistan, and before 9/11.
There has been much speculation about what motivates young men and women to carry out acts of terrorism in the UK. My Service needs to understand the motivations behind terrorism to succeed in countering it, as far as that is possible. Al-Qaida has developed an ideology which claims that Islam is under attack, and needs to be defended. This is a powerful narrative that weaves together conflicts from across the globe, presenting the Wests response to varied and complex issues...as evidence of an across-the-board determination to undermine and humiliate Islam worldwide.
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