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Voter Registration

24. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the number of eligible voters who are not registered. [109916]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): The Electoral Commission, in its research report “Understanding electoral registration”, which was published in September 2005, found that in the region of 3.5 million people across England and Wales who were eligible to be registered were missing from the 2000 register.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I have seen the figures. Is she also aware that a high proportion of those 3.5 million people are from minority and disadvantaged groups? Will she guarantee that the Government will make every effort, with resources, to ensure that all those people become registered and our democracy becomes truly representative?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important point. For our democracy to survive, it is essential that everyone who should be on the register is on it. He is right to point out that those who are most likely not to be on the register come from the younger age group, the socially excluded and, in particular, the black and ethnic minority community. In his constituency, there is under-registration of about 5 per cent. Almost certainly, most of those people will be from the black and ethnic minority community. My Department is working extremely hard, along with the Electoral Commission, to make sure that we go out and encourage electoral registration officers to target, through the Electoral Administration Act 2006, those groups who most need to be targeted to ensure that our register is as complete as possible. On that basis, I hope that every Member of the House, after enjoying a happy and peaceful Christmas, will return in the new year ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote in their constituency is on the register and able to do so.

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Points of Order

12.34 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) discovers that she did not consult the Law Centres Federation before ploughing ahead with the community legal aid and advice centres, will she be able to come to the House and correct the record? Would that not be the normal practice?

Mr. Speaker: I am not going to continue Question Time, which is what is happening at the moment.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am full of the Christmas spirit and have just left a Christmas card for Ministers on the Front Bench, but I would be grateful if you would rule that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), was out of order both today and the other day in relation to a Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) in Westminster Hall last week.

In respect of Adjournment debates, “Erskine May” says:

I was present throughout the whole of the debate, because it was on my subject, but I did not seek to intervene. I would be grateful, Mr. Speaker, if you would confirm that I behaved entirely properly, and that the Under-Secretary was out of order in suggesting that I should have intervened, given that I know that we will have a three-hour debate on the matter in Westminster Hall at the beginning of next term.

Mr. Speaker: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could write to the Under-Secretary on this matter, because I am being drawn into the argument. I think it would be best if he were careful about how he uses the term “Adjournment debate”. When we have Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall, there is usually an allocation of time for Front-Bench spokesmen, and that is different from an Adjournment debate on the Floor of the House, which is exclusively on a case that is being put by a constituency MP. If the hon. Gentleman could write to the Under-Secretary to put the record straight, that would be the best way to proceed.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is there nothing that can be done about lawyers who are somewhat used to being
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paid by the hour and, as a consequence, take an inordinate amount of time to ask a question and even longer to answer one?

Mr. Speaker: I have been giving some tutoring to the Under-Secretary, because I know that she came from the courts to Parliament. I would not say that she took too long today; it is just that she is improving, and there could be more improvement.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), Mr. Speaker. I also attended the half-hour Westminster Hall debate on 13 December. Am I not right in saying that although my Conservative colleagues intervened, it would not have been in order for me, as a Front-Bench spokesman present in an observer capacity, to have done so?

Mr. Speaker: That is what I said. We must be careful with our terms when we talk about half-hour debates. There are debates of an hour and a half or half an hour. As I said, these are matters that can be clarified by hon. Members with the Under-Secretary, so I have no need to be drawn in.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you had an application from the Ministry of Defence to make a statement on the widespread stories in the press of an attack on the professionalism and morale of airborne forces through a long-term suspension of parachute training? In view of the astonishing record of the Paras and units such as 7 Para Royal Horse Artillery and 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers in doing the dirtiest, most difficult and most dangerous jobs in places ranging from the Falklands to Afghanistan, the House might wish to discuss this matter before it simply becomes a fact.

Mr. Speaker: Every Member of the House has a high regard for the Parachute Regiment, but that is really not a matter for the Chair. The hon. Gentleman could table parliamentary questions on the matter.


Cluster Munitions (prohibition of Development and Acquisition)

Nick Harvey, supported by John Barrett, Willie Rennie, Susan Kramer, Mr. Michael Moore, Bob Russell, Lorely Burt, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Tim Farron and Malcolm Bruce, presented a Bill to prohibit the development, acquisition, possession, transfer and use of cluster munitions and their components; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 26 January, and to be printed [Bill 42].

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Christmas Adjournment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Roy.]

12.38 pm

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I would like to take this opportunity to raise a couple of issues of accountability that have arisen in two recent cases with which I have dealt. When this House discusses accountability it is often aimed at improving the accountability of Government and other public bodies, and rightly so. When it discusses the accountability of the private sector, it is usually in the context of failure, as has been shown in the recent case of Farepak and in many cases relating to pensions.

I want to focus on private sector accountability and the cases of two companies that are not failing—indeed, in many ways they are thriving. Each case raises a different aspect of accountability.

The first case concerns my constituents who live in and around Southwold close in North Swindon. They live near a site being developed by George Wimpey, and their lives are being blighted by the lack of consideration being shown by those developers. For example, the planning conditions state that work should not begin before 8 o’clock in the morning, but lorries arrive from 7.10 and sit just outside the site with their engines running. Families with young childrenare deeply concerned about the drivers’ practice of mounting the pavements and driving over roundabouts in their rush to get to the site. Building materials are dumped off-site by residents’ homes, raising profound concerns about health and safety. There is constant noise and disruption to the environment.

Some disruption in a development area is inevitable, but what makes this unacceptable is Wimpey’s response to complaints. It continually refuses my requests to sit down with me and residents to find a mutually satisfactory way to resolve the issues. Instead, the managing director of George Wimpey South West feels that the issues

That is not the view, incidentally, of Swindon borough council or the Health and Safety Executive, both of whom are responsibly and thoroughly investigating the complaints.

My constituents in the Oakhurst residents association, who seem to me to be decent, responsible people who quite reasonably want nothing other than to have their lives disturbed as little as possible by intrusive and disruptive development work, feel increasingly harassed and intimidated by Wimpey. Of course it is understandable that developers should want to get their site developed and sold off as quickly as possible. But that is no excuse for the basic lack of consideration shown to those local residents, whose money the developers have already pocketed for their own homes. The process of enforcement of planning conditions and health and safety regulations by both Swindon borough council and the HSE is under way, but the process is inevitably complex and lengthy, and in the meantime my constituents’ lives are being blighted.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying because I have had a similar experience in my constituency. Is Wimpey admitting some of these breaches or denying them? If it
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is denying them, let the argument run. If it is admitting some of them, frankly it is not for the company to say that the matter is being blown out of all proportion; it is for the community and the hon. Gentleman to make a judgment about whether its behaviour is so objectionable that the matter needs to be taken further. These private bullies must be tackled.

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I entirely agree with his last sentiment. The company is in fact tacitly conceding the case, because it has made some minor adjustments to its practices. There are health and safety regulations that can be enforced, but the hon. Gentleman is well aware that that takes time, and in the meantime, every hour of the day, my constituents and, I am sure,those of the hon. Gentleman who are in similar circumstances are having their lives disrupted to an unacceptable extent. What is needed is some common sense and basic consideration. The company should sit down with the residents to talk frankly about the needs and obligations on both sides and come to a mutually satisfactory agreement.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): We have had similar incidents in the village of Adlington, where a large housing company is showing total disregard for the area’s residents. It has yet to fulfil its agreements under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. I am worried about what will happen if the council does not take action, perhaps through the environment committee, to put the company under great pressure. What bonds are being held by the local authority in case the company is in breach of conditions? Perhaps some of those could be used. A company such as Wimpey, which belongs to a housing federation, ought to take responsibility. It should be talking about compensating the residents whom it has upset. Perhaps that is a way forward.

Mr. Wills: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I was going to conclude my remarks on this subject by inviting contributions from the House, so I am delighted that they are already being volunteered. This is clearly a widespread problem. I want to alert the House to some of the measures that we are taking locally to deal with the problem, because it is unacceptable.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I am immensely interested in the construction industry, as my hon. Friend may be aware, particularly its performance as regards the communities that it is supposed to be serving. Has Wimpey signed up to a corporate social responsibility charter? If not, it should be encouraged to do so. Is my hon. Friend aware that Wimpey has successfully tendered for a significant number of Government contracts? It should be reminded of that fact in its dealings with normal people.

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution, and I bow to her great experience and knowledge of such matters. Companies must exhibit basic consideration; that is my point. Many of us have been frustrated in our dealings with private companies. Recently, I had some frustrating correspondence with Euro Disney, which has refused to take appropriate
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action over the security of taxis operating just outside its gates. It has been rude, and it has been complacent about security, for which, strictly speaking, it has no legal liability. There is little that I can do about that, because until or unless a tragedy occurs outside the gates of Euro Disney, it will show no signs of budging.

In the case of George Wimpey, there is something that might cause developers to change their approach: anyone who buys a home next to a site being developed by Wimpey, or the other developers that hon. Friends and hon. Members have mentioned in the House, should be made aware of the sort of environment that they can expect those developers to create. That would be an example of the power of the market operating through better information. If that is done, it could well affect the marketability of the homes sold by those developers, and that, I hope, might encourage them to be more considerate. Their lack of consideration is driven, above all, by their desire to make as much money as quickly as possible, so if lack of consideration damages that outcome, they might discover the value of showing consideration.

I have set up a section on my website called “Developer Watch” to highlight bad cases of developer behaviour—and good cases, too, to reward those companies that show proper consideration to their neighbours. I am delighted that Swindon borough council, partly as a result of the case that I mentioned, will introduce a developers code of conduct, and will name and shame developers who do not follow it. I commend the council for that, and the scheme could be significant in the Swindon area. We are building about 2,000 new homes a year, and there is to be significant new development in the south of the town. In coming years, 30,000 or more houses, with a total current market value of £7 billion, are likely to be built in the east of the town. Over time, if proper information is made available about the behaviour of developers and the consideration, or lack of it, that they show, it might encourage them to demonstrate more consideration for residents. I welcome contributions from other hon. Members on the subject, and I should like to hear from hon. Members who have had similar problems on how best to encourage such developers to show more consideration for residents.

Secondly, I want to raise the issue of the accountability of utilities. As I intend to return to the subject in the near future, I shall merely outline the issue today. I am conscious that a number of other hon. Members want to make contributions, so I shall be brief. Over the past few years, I have received an increasing number of complaints about foul water flooding in my constituency, which has happened on repeated occasions in the same location. I have received complaints about the inadequacy of the response from Thames Water Utilities. Its failure to invest in the infrastructure seems to have been responsible for much of the flooding. Its last owner, RWE, extracted more than £825 million in dividends over the past five years, and it made a £500 million profit from its five-year ownership, before it sold Thames Water last month. Thames Water earned a 6.8 per cent. return on capital employed in 2005-06, but it still cannot invest adequately to prevent repeated foul water flooding, often in the same location, in my constituency.

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It is only fair to note that there has been a distinct improvement in the tone and content of the response from Thames Water, since its recent takeover by Macquarie. I hope that that will lead to a more rapid resolution of the immediate problems faced by my constituents, such as those in Colebrook road. However, issues clearly remain. The obligations on water companies to deal with the consequences of such flooding are inadequate, and the problem is likely to increase, as a result of climate change and new housing developments.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: On that point, I am immensely concerned about the way in which companies, particularly utility companies, normally respond to foul water flooding by saying that it would be far too expensive for them to do anything straight away, or by saying that it would be immensely inconvenient to do something at that time, and that any action would have to be part of a larger strategy. I urge my hon. Friend, in his discussions with Thames Water, to ask them for small, interim solutions. Those are normally much cheaper, and can alleviate the problem for residents while they wait for a much bigger solution. Interim solutions are normally about a tenth of the cost of the final scheme. The fact that companies are waiting to carry out a final scheme is not a good excuse, and the situation is intolerable for the domestic consumer.

Mr. Wills: Again, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for her knowledgeable and wise contribution. I wish the situation were as she describes. Often in my experience of Thames Water, the company has relied on the strict letter of the Ofwat regulations, which it feels drive it to deal with problems in a particular way, which is often the way that is least helpful to my constituents. The problem could largely be allayed by a more rapid response, more comprehensive clean-up facilities and, again, consideration for the plight of those affected.

The issue is complex and I do not want to oversimplify it. In the landmark case of Marcic v. Thames Water recently, the House of Lords removed possible remedies in law under the Human Rights Act and through an action for nuisance. That creates a difficulty for many householders. Although Ofwat tightened its requirements in the 2004 periodic review, the situation faced by my constituents affected by the problem remains unacceptable.

There are difficult judgments to be made about who should fund improvements and compensation, how and when, but it cannot be right that a utility can choose to wait two full days after foul water flooding has subsided before cleaning up. What are families meant to do in the meantime, particularly low income families who have no relatives in the area and nowhere to go, and families with young children? I have constituents in that position, as no doubt do other hon. Members. What about the risks to health and safety?

It cannot be right that so much latitude is allowed to companies to delay investment to prevent such flooding. It cannot be acceptable that the obligation on utilities for compensation is so light—equivalent to a year’s sewerage charges—when the potential damage in terms not only of clean-up, replacement of furniture and so on, but to the marketability of homes is so great.

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These are all serious concerns, which I hope my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will carry back to Ministers. I hope to return to the subject in the new year with a more detailed case for change. In the meantime, Mr. Speaker, may I take the opportunity to wish you and the House a happy and restful Christmas?

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