Previous Section Index Home Page

The amendments that should be made in the circumstances that I have mentioned are as follows. First, there should be an increase in the protection period for existing scheme members from 2016, as is currently proposed, to 2020, which is what has been agreed in Scotland, or even 2025, as proposed in Northern Ireland. Secondly, there should be no cap or limit on the employers’ contribution rates; to limit the employers’ contribution rate would, in many cases, be a reward for poor management and past mistakes. Thirdly, the employees’ contribution rates should be determined after the draft regulations are laid and the formal consultation period has expired; however, a number of options could, and should, be proposed and consulted
19 Dec 2006 : Column 1300
upon. Fourthly, the ill health retirement provisions should be improved in line with provisions of other public service schemes.

The vast majority of the amendments that the recognised trade unions are seeking are not costly items. However, even if they were costly items, by allowing more of the savings from the proposed changes to be used, they could be made on a cost-neutral basis at the very least. Unlike other public sector pension schemes and the LGPS in Scotland, the LGPS in England and Wales has provided for only 50 per cent. of the significant savings—achieved by extending the normal retirement age to 65 and so forth—to be used to improve the scheme or provide protections. In the other public sector schemes and in Scotland, the full 100 per cent. of the savings is being used to improve the scheme or provide protections.

I have made most of the points that I wanted to make. Reading out that part of my speech might have made it fairly dull, but a lot of my constituents will be very pleased to know that I am taking an interest in matters to do with retirement and ill health insurance that are close to their hearts.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) talked about her local hospital, and I shall now briefly talk about my own, Airedale general hospital. It lies in the heart of my constituency—in the Aire valley near Eastburn—and it is an institution that is much loved by all my constituents. It is the biggest employer in my constituency, employing 1,000 people, and it is well regarded, and I am happy for it to continue as it has thus far.

I do not like ideas about, and talk of, modernisations; when I hear about modernisations, I start to get a bit worried. I do not want services to flow away from Airedale hospital to centres such as Bradford and Leeds. I am sure that Bradford and Leeds have excellent hospitals. However, I like to think that I have an excellent district general hospital that can provide for my constituents in accident and emergency situations—and many forms of chemotherapy are also carried out there, and many sorts of surgical operations. As I have said, my constituents are very pleased with the hospital. The people who work there do an excellent job. I do not want any of the services at my hospital to be moved away. I want to put on record my support for the hospital and its staff.

In June 2001, Sir Herman Ouseley, now Lord Ouseley, produced a report on Bradford—of course, my constituency forms one fifth of the Bradford district—in which he talked about the problems arising from a lack of integration and cohesion in the Bradford district. He put a great deal of the blame for that on the fact that only 50 per cent. of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community in the Bradford district spoke any English at all, let alone excellent English.

That was a difficult issue to touch on at that time, but because of Lord Ouseley’s comments I felt brave enough to raise then the subject of the need for English speaking within my Asian community. I talked about the need for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to use English in the home, which is a rare thing in Bradford. I suggested that, although that would not necessarily lead to their children speaking English, it would at least make them aware that such a language existed and enable them to go to school with some knowledge of it.
19 Dec 2006 : Column 1301
When I raised this issue, I was called “a linguistic imperialist”. I was quite impressed by that title, which is an excellent one to have.

Thanks to the comments of just one or two of the louder-mouthed members of my Asian community, the point was reached whereby some councillors suggested to the then general secretary of the Labour party that I should be expelled from it because I was little more than a racist. Of course, that was quite wrong. I have three half-Indian grandchildren and one half-African step-granddaughter, so I am hardly a racist. As I said, this was a very difficult subject to raise at that time, and I am pleased to say that the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), supported me by virtually repeating what I had said on the Floor of the House. That support was needed, because it was a frightening time for me. I was very worried and felt quite intimidated by comments about expelling me from the Labour party and my being a racist.

Five years on, the problem remains that very little English is spoken in Asian households in Bradford. Two weeks ago, I visited a school in my constituency that is 95 per cent. Muslim, and I was told that 95 per cent. of its children enter school at three or four not just with no English, but with no knowledge of the language. In many cases, they have never even heard it being spoken. When I made those comments five years ago, most Muslim children were at least watching various BBC children’s programmes, so they had an idea of what English sounded like. Now, in these modern times, most members of my Muslim community have satellite dishes and get the majority of their television programmes from Pakistan, so the children go to school at three or four having heard no English.

I do not often say flattering things about the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House, but two weeks ago, he made a speech from No. 10 Downing street in which he mentioned many of the things that I am talking about today. He said that there was a great need for a move away from segregation, and toward integration and cohesion. He was also brave enough to say that there was a need for English, and that, in order to follow that through, we will establish a requirement for English before a person can gain indefinite leave to remain. I hope that that comment will indeed be followed through. At the moment, a person can obtain indefinite leave to remain without having any English whatsoever, so they do not bother to learn it. In fact, many young Asian girls who have come to Keighley as wives are actively discouraged by their in-laws from learning English, because once they know English, they know their rights and have the wherewithal to look after themselves. So many Asian in-laws in Keighley do not want their girls to learn English.

I am therefore very pleased that the Prime Minister suggested that, in order to get indefinite leave to remain, incomers will have to have English. I should point out that at the moment, people have to have English in order to obtain citizenship, so the situation will not be that different; this is not a great breakthrough. People have to have been here for five years before they can obtain citizenship. However, many people in my constituency are not all that bothered about getting
19 Dec 2006 : Column 1302
citizenship, so they are not all that bothered about learning English. What they are bothered about is getting indefinite leave to remain.

I thank the Prime Minister for raising this issue. I hope that we will go through with the proposal and that people will need to have English in order to obtain indefinite leave to remain, and that more money will be put into our further education colleges, so that we can enable those people to learn English as a second language. I am afraid that FE is the poor relation of education, so if we are going to make this change and be fair to people coming to this country, we will have to put a great deal more money into teaching English as a second language in our FE colleges. I look forward to that happening.

1.56 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is always a great pleasure to listen to and follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), whom many Opposition Members find always speaks a great deal of sense. I particularly agree with her concluding remarks about the search for what binds and unites us as a country. As someone whose own brother is a teacher of English as a foreign language, I can say that English is of course a fundamental component in that regard. What the hon. Lady said was tremendously welcome; it needs to be said more often and I commend her for saying it.

I want to raise—briefly, as a number of Members want to get in—four issues brought to me by my constituents and two of wider interest. First, I want to put on the record my support for Bedfordshire primary care trust’s revised bid for a community hospital in Leighton Buzzard, in my constituency. Various Members have expressed concern today about the scaling back of health services such as community hospitals in the areas that they represent. Leighton Buzzard is one of the largest towns in the whole country without any form of hospital facility—if not the largest—so I am very pleased that Bedfordshire PCT is putting forward a bid for a community hospital there. I was with the PCT on1 December—the day on which it had a meeting with the East of England strategic health authority. The bid will have to be finalised by next summer, and if the community hospital is deemed needed and affordable, it could be built within some 18 months, particularly if NHS capital is used, so we could have it by 2009. The proposal is for a new main facility in the town, but also for more and better services on existing health sites in the town. We can expect facilities such as diabetes treatment, wound care, consultant out-patient clinics, extended primary care, social care and various diagnostic facilities.

My constituents have waited a very long time for some form of community hospital in Leighton Buzzard, and we are naturally cautious—seeing will be believing. When we see bricks going on other bricks, we will know that we have reason to celebrate. I am heartened by my last meeting with the primary care trust and wish to put on record my full support for bringing the project to fruition.

My next point is about transport and especially the journeys faced by constituents who live in Leighton Buzzard and the wider commuter hinterland around it.
19 Dec 2006 : Column 1303
The capacity of the railways was much touched on in Transport questions earlier. Leighton Buzzard is growing fast and is scheduled to grow much faster still, but it has nothing like enough jobs to support its working population. Indeed, that is a feature of the whole of my constituency and at least 55 per cent. of my constituents commute out of the area to work. I was therefore very concerned recently to receive a letter from Silverlink, the train operator, dated 22 November, in which it said that it was not possible to put on any more fast trains from Leighton Buzzard into London and that the existing fast trains cannot be made any longer. The commuter services are already very full and if we see the increase in Leighton Buzzard’s population that is anticipated under the Government’s sustainable communities plan, I wonder how people in the town will be able to get to work and back again. I do notsee joined-up thinking between the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I wish to put my concern about that matter firmly on the record.

I also have reason to believe—it has been said to me by several senior local authority figures in Bedfordshire—that since the announcement about the Olympics those of us in other areas of the country have sensed a movement of money towards ensuring that we can put the games on successfully in 2012. I wonder whether large parts of the Government’s sustainable communities plan are not fully feasible because of how much money will have to be spent on building the Olympic facilities.

The third issue that I wish to raise is the exclusion of children from lessons, which can be quite an emotional subject. I have mentioned before—not least recently in the excellent Adjournment debate instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in Westminster Hall on children with speech and language difficulties—my concerns about children who are physically restrained by teachers or learning support staff in schools without their parents being made aware that it is happening. Parents have a fundamental right to know what is happening to their children in schools, certainly as far as physical restraint is concerned. I see parents as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

In my surgery last week, I had a mother and father who told me about the experiences of their young child, who was being regularly excluded from a substantial part, or the whole, of periods in the school day. The parents were not being told that that was happening. I look at such issues instinctively. I do not reach for a party handbook and see what the line to take is, but instead react as a human being and father. I think about how I would feel if that happened to my own children. Frankly, if a child is excluded from a whole or substantial part of a lesson, the parents should be told that that has happened at the end of the school day. I am not saying that the parents should be told immediately, but they should be told by the end of the day, because—I repeat—parents are part of the solution. Education is not a linear relationship between the school and the children, but a triangular relationship in which the parents are fundamental.

I was surprised to find that such exclusions were happening. I know that the situation varies in different
19 Dec 2006 : Column 1304
schools and local education authorities, but I am concerned about it and wish to place my views on the record.

The next issue I wish to raise is training, especially for those no longer in the first flush of youth. A constituent came to see me recently who is 44, as I am, and is on incapacity benefit. He wanted to train as a plasterer—an excellent idea, as we have a shortage of plasterers in the area. However, the plastering course that he was considering lasted three years. For young people who live with their parents and so do not have expensive accommodation costs it may be fine to go on a training course for three or four years. However, for people in their 30s or 40s, perhaps with a family, a training course of that length is impossible to complete. I suggest that such courses should be held, to the same standard and as rigorously, on a much more intensive basis. Students would work for longer during the day and perhaps over weekends so that the courses could be completed in six months or so. More people on low incomes or benefits would then be able to complete a course and gain a skill with which to earn their living. The plastering course was three years, as was the plumbing course. A qualification in health and safety took four years, and the electrician course took three years with one year of on the job training. We need to consider the duration of such courses and I have raised the issue with Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills.

Like every other hon. Member I have been shocked and appalled by the events in Ipswich in the past few days. I read the biographies of the five women who were so brutally and horrifically murdered and I cannot have been the only one to be struck by the fact that they were all heroin addicts. It is a problem that affects all our constituencies—there will not be a single Member of Parliament who does not have a heroin problem in their constituency. Given that we know that 90 per cent. of the heroin on UK streets comes from Afghanistan and that we have a major military presence there, it is extraordinary that we cannot do more to stop the poppy crop ending up here. I know that right hon. and hon. Members have raised that issue with Ministers. I recall that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), to name but two, have done so. Not so long ago under the common agricultural policy we were able to buy up crops in the European Union, although the regime has since changed. The Minister looks at me quizzically, but my question is: why, given that heroin can have legitimate medical uses, cannot we buy up the Afghan heroin crop and use it around the world for pain relief? That would stop it flooding into this country illegally. We need more serious thought about that issue. The UK was charged with overall responsibility for the opium issue in Afghanistan and it is a subject that has been raised with Ministers by my Front-Bench colleagues recently.

Finally, I wish everyone a happy Christmas, as is traditional for hon. Members speaking in this debate. We have had a healthy debate about the very words “Happy Christmas” this year, with a satisfactory outcome. I am pleased by the work of the Christian Muslim Forum, which involves Muslims and Christians working together. Many Muslims have said that they are not offended by the celebration of Christmas in this country
19 Dec 2006 : Column 1305
or by people wishing them a happy Christmas, just as I as a Christian am not remotely offended if someone wishes me a happy Diwali or happy Eid. A few days ago, I saw an e-mail from the Hindu Council of Britain saying that this country’s Hindu community was absolutely happy with the celebration of Christmas in this Christian country. I was also especially struck and impressed by the card from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik). He is a Muslim, but his card to me and the other hon. Members on his extensive Christmas list very clearly wishes us a merry Christmas. That is an excellent example, and one worth raising in this debate.

I have been keeping a little list of the people who have sent me cards with the message “Season’s Greetings”. There are far too many such cards from people in Bedfordshire who should know better. I agree with the hon. Member for Dewsbury, who made it clear that, as a Muslim, he was wishing us a happy Christmas. In that spirit, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you, the staff of the House and other hon. Members a very happy Christmas.

2.11 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I have a cunning plan, Madam Deputy Speaker, that might appeal to the rest of the House. I suggest that, at the last minute, we should decide not to adjourn today. If we did that, then we could creep up to the Press Gallery tomorrow and see whether it was like the Mary Celeste. If so, we could telephone the news editors and inquire where folk were. They would probably say, “Well, they told me they were down the Commons, clearing their desks and so on.” Given how often our friends and brethren in the Gallery write about MPs going on holiday, we should try to spring a trick like that on them sometimes. However, I hope that we will keep the plan secret.

Another good reason not to adjourn is the fact that many hon. Members have a lot of unfinished business. I want to pursue the many parliamentary questions that I have put down that so far have not received a reply, even though a response from the Government is long overdue. One such question, to the Home Office, arose from press reports that the Government had abandoned defending the Prison Service against compensation claims from prisoners taken off illegal drugs in prison and offered detoxification programmes as an alternative. To my astonishment—and that of constituents who have raised the matter with me—the Prison Service is being sued by those prisoners. That is incredible, but my parliamentary questions on the matter have received no reply. I cannot understand why the Home Office has not been able to give me a swift response.

Similarly, the National Audit Office has been investigating the handling of grievance procedures involving Foreign Office staff. The Foreign Office has stonewalled scrutiny for months, but the NAO adjudication has now been received. Under pressure from me, the Foreign Office promised that the report would be made available on its own intranet, and that a copy would be placed in the House of Commons Library.

I have not yet seen the NAO report, but I expect it to be highly critical. As far as I can ascertain, it is not yet available to be read by Foreign Office staff or Members
19 Dec 2006 : Column 1306
of Parliament. In my view, the Foreign Office has a record of very poor stewardship in matters to do with what is now termed human resources, and the present position is very unsatisfactory. I hope that it will make sure that a copy of the report is available in the Library tomorrow, as I shall be there looking for it.

This debate allows us to raise various matters to do with our constituencies. I want to remind my area’s train operator, c2c, and Network Rail about Tilbury Town station and the parlous state of access to it for disabled people, mums with prams and the semi-ambulant. The station has the town of Tilbury on one side, but no residences on the other, southern, side, so people who want to travel to London must negotiate an appalling footbridge.

Earlier this year, money was made available under the Access for All programme to improve access to railway stations nationally but, to our disappointment and irritation, Tilbury Town station lost out. That is unacceptable: Ministers at the Department for Transport and those with responsibility for disabled people must work with representatives of the bodies to which I referred and revisit the problem. Indeed, the same accessibility problem at Tilbury Town is also familiar to people in South Ockenden and elsewhere along the same line and, as a matter of fairness and equality, it needs to be addressed with some expedition.

I am very proud of the Thurrock marshes in my constituency; it is a site of special scientific interest that is of critical importance to wildlife and to bird migration. However, it is threatened by the motorbike fraternity and the extensive use of quad bikes. People are entitled to have a place in which to pursue their sport or enthusiasm, but the marshes are the scene ofa clash of two legitimate interests. I want the Environment Agency and Natural England to review the matter with some urgency, to see whether they can work with the local planning authority to protect what is an invaluable site of national importance. The threat is continuing as we speak, and I have no doubt that it will increase over the holiday period.

One of the flagship elements of the current Labour manifesto is the promise to make the Thames Gateway area a nice place to live and work, where people can have all sorts of recreational opportunities and where commerce can expand. I wholeheartedly supported the establishment of the Thurrock urban development corporation and, although I have been disappointed that the development has been slower than planned, there has been some movement lately that I welcome very much.

Ministers often talk about joined-up government. The objectives of the Thurrock urban development corporation include providing both relatively low-cost homes for rent or purchase and some very valuable properties that will enhance the area and add to the social mix. If those objectives are to be achieved, the development corporation needs to be able to offer employment to people moving into the area, and to those who live there already. In addition, proper skills training will be needed in the development to the west that includes the Olympic site.

Next Section Index Home Page