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The budgetary pressures have been caused by recent Government decisions. Most worrying to the local authority are cuts in funding for post-18 asylum
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seekers who are leaving care but require ongoing support. Previously, boroughs supporting more than44 asylum-seeking care leavers aged between 18 and24 received between £100 and £140 a week from the Department for Education and Skills to provide support services, with the first 44 being provided for entirely by the local authority. However, in October last year and January this year the Government issued circulars stating that that would fall to £100 a week for boroughs with more than 25 asylum-seeking care leavers. Certain local authorities with a handful of asylum-seeking care leavers might benefit from that move, but for Hillingdon it has caused acute budgetary challenges. The problem was compounded by the fact that the cuts were to apply retrospectively. This was announced at a time when Hillingdon had already set its budgets and planned council tax levels. It must be incredibly unsound and unjust to set out grant rules that significantly change practice some 10 months after the financial year has started.

The impact of those Government cuts was substantial and unplanned for. Hillingdon had to find an extra £1.6 million for the financial year 2004-05 and £3.7 million for the financial year 2005-06, and there will be an estimated ongoing future annual impact of £4.8 million. I must stress that that money was already set aside for other services. As a result, earlier this year the council was forced to set its budget and council tax levels for 2006-07 with the above deficiencies in its budget, and it is now having to do exactly the samefor the forthcoming year. The council faces several unpalatable options, including a significant number of staff redundancies, all of which are being caused by the disingenuous approach of the DFES. Interestingly, and rather worryingly, the Minister formerly responsible for the matter refused to meet council officials to discuss it.

I am pleased to say that the council is not taking this lying down, and has successfully applied to the High Court for permission to proceed with a judicial review, which we hope will take place in January. The issue attracts cross-party support locally, with the leader of the Labour group and both Liberal Democrats supporting the Conservative administration’s stance. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who is in his place now, share my concerns. They, like me, will have heard from their constituents about the strain that the underfunding is placing on local support services.

A significant number of people living in Hillingdon have been through the official asylum process but were rejected and have subsequently exhausted all appeals. The Government have decreed that such people should no longer be living in the UK. However, arrangements for their removal lie in the hands of the Home Office, and until it undertakes its responsibility in that regard, the burden of financial support remains with thelocal authority. The London borough of Hillingdon currently supports, at an annual cost of £1.2 million, some 155 asylum seekers who have exhausted all appeals. Officers have told me that as a result, pressure is already being placed on services such as refuse collection, libraries, parks, street cleaning and housing. Ultimately, it is the local council tax payers who are having to pay, because the Home Office is not doingits job.

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What galls me particularly is learning that officialsin the Home Office contacted council offices in Hillingdon in September asking for a full list of those asylum seekers who had exhausted all appeals. It seems incredible that the Home Office did not know who those people were or where they lived. Three months down the line, no action has been taken. The fact that the Home Office had to come and ask the local authority who those people were, and where they were, gives me little faith that it has any idea at all what itis doing. It is just incredible. I want Ministers to understand and recognise the unfairness of the situation. As long as the Home Office has problems dealing with that group of people, Hillingdon should be reimbursed for the full cost of providing support services.

The most worrying aspect of the issue is the threat to community cohesion. I have lived in Hillingdon all my life, and we have a proud tradition of good community relations, which everyone is keen to retain. However, if we see council tax rises or service cuts in Hillingdon, I am afraid that certain people may try to attribute them to the cost of those asylum seekers. Underfunding from central Government is to blame, but extremist parties may wish to exploit the situation. The dangers of walking blindly into such a situation have already been seen in Barking and Dagenham, with the election of 12 British National party councillors. I do not want to see the BNP or the National Front doing anything in Hillingdon.

In May, National Front candidates stood in two wards and received considerable support. Thankfully, they were beaten convincingly by the Conservatives, but in Harefield ward, the National Front came second to the Conservatives, beating the Labour candidates, who had held the ward in previous years, and the Liberal Democrats. I do not want to overplay the threat of extremism, nor should we understate it. It is one of the reasons why we have a strong cross-party consensus in Hillingdon. I hope that Ministers will recognise and understand those concerns.

Government cuts are not the only pressures onour budgets in Hillingdon. The financial crisis in Hillingdon primary care trust, which has had a staggering five executives in 18 months, is putting health and social care services in the borough at risk. The Government’s insistence that the PCT balanceits books within a short time scale is making it increasingly likely that the recovery plan will impact on the extent and quality of local health and social care services. In addition, it is clear that the PCT is attempting to shunt a lot of the NHS costs on to the local authority, on the highly questionable basis that the support being provided to extremely vulnerable service users could be regarded as social rather than health care. That course of action is being followed despite the fact that those costs have been met by the NHS for many years.

Given the huge scale of the problem at Hillingdon PCT, it is clear that the cost shunt being sought by the PCT will run into many millions of pounds. That impression is confirmed by our contact with the PCT, which has stated that a PCT cut of at least £3 million per annum is required in jointly commissioned services for people with learning disabilities. A similar cost reduction appears to be the aim for a range of other
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patients with continuing care assessments, as the means of transferring historical NHS costs to the local authority.

The PCT has also cut £500,000 from its grants and voluntary agencies, which provide essential support to people with significant health problems. As many of those services are preventive and supportive in nature, the council will have to pick up some of that funding liability, thereby avoiding further demand on primary health and care services.

All that represents a considerable cost pressure, which could amount to between £5 million and£10 million per annum if simply transferred to the local authority. That would be completely unacceptable to council tax payers in the borough and to the local authority, which cannot afford to meet a cost pressure of such magnitude.

I am sorry to bring such a tale of woe from Hillingdon when we should be looking forward to Christmas and the new year. However, because at heart I am basically an avuncular and jolly person, I have some good news, too. The council’s excellent record of sticking up for some of the most vulnerable members of our community was proved again only last week when Hillingdon became the first London borough to announce a council tax discount scheme for pensioners. The proposal, for a 2 per cent. reduction in next year’s council tax increase for pensioners, was approved by the council’s cabinet at its meeting last week. Those aged 65 and over will be eligible for the discount, and there are approximately 18,500 such households in my borough. My admiration for the scheme is only increased by the fact that it was achieved when the council faces the budgetary challenges that I described.

It cannot be right that the London borough of Hillingdon—my rate payers and my fellow residents—are being penalised for implementing the Government’s asylum policy. I am sure that Hillingdon and the Government can work together on that. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to take note of my points and pass them on to the appropriate Ministers. I can assure them that I and my fellow MPs in the London borough of Hillingdon, with a cross-party consensus, will not give up our campaign to get fairness for my fellow Hillingdon residents.

On that note, as a retailer who has mixed views about Christmas, I wish everyone a very happy Christmas and a prosperous new year.

3.46 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): It is always a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) because we share a great love—that is, of course, a love of rugby league, as there is no better sport.

We received the sad news that late last night, Lord Carter, a Member of another place, died. Denis was a great friend to all political parties. He was Chief Whip in the Lords. May I say how saddened we all are to hear of his death? I had the privilege of knowing Denis over many years. My father was a Whip in the Lords—well, that was my father’s decision—and I got to know Denis very well. He was a farmer with a great reputation
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within the farming industry for knowledge. He brought that to the Lords. Most people say that not many Labour Members know about farming, but Denis Carter was an exception. He also knew everyone. He will be missed as a friend, and our sympathies and prayers go to his wife, Teresa, who is left because, tragically, they lost their daughter not many years ago and their son as well. We all extend our heartfelt sympathies to her.

It is a privilege to speak in Adjournment debates and I want to touch on some issues that affect our constituencies, none more so than post offices. We all have deep concerns about what is happening to them. I represent an urban and rural constituency, and I fear the announcement on closures. I understand that something will come out on Thursday. Tragically, it might have been better had that announcement been made while the House was sitting so that we could have debated where those closures are taking place and who will be affected by them.

There is great speculation about that announcement. Unfortunately, a local councillor, Councillor Malpas, has gone about telling us that we are going to lose swathes of post offices in Chorley. That is sad because it puts post offices under pressure and it is silly to speculate. I hope that he learns the lessons from his earlier mistakes. At the last general election, he campaigned to tell us all that the general post office in Chorley was closing. I must remind hon. Members that it is still open.

I worry about post offices. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House should be aware that hon. Members on both sides of the House share my deep concerns. We all respect post offices. They ensure that pensioners or younger people who use them are guaranteed a quality service. Those people also know that by speaking to someone who runs a sub-post office, they are dealing with someone whom they can trust. It would be wrong for huge swathes—thousands upon thousands—to disappear. They are at the heart of the community. We must support post offices, both rural and urban.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way with characteristic generosity. He is making some excellent points. Does he agree, in a cross-party spirit, that while the Government have devoted tremendous financial support to maintaining the post offices as far as they can and should continue to do so, they should also reconsider their policy of removing public business from post offices, which is the root cause of their failure? Should they not consider reversing the decision on the Post Office card account, and put public business back into post offices?

Mr. Hoyle: Of course I agree. I cannot disagree. I do not shy away from the fact that when television licences were taken away, post offices lost good business. There is talk of Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency business being taken away from post offices as well, although I remind the hon. Gentleman that that does not affect all rural and urban post offices, as only a select few can deal with road tax.

I recognise that part of the problem has been caused by business being moved away without new business going in. The question mark over the post offices means that those in charge of them must decide whether to
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pack up and retire when they reach the age at which they would like to do so. No one will buy a business when there is uncertainty. That uncertainty must be lifted, so that new business can go into post offices and they can be revitalised.

We should not think solely in terms of closures. We should think about new post offices in new areas, because we have seen new growth. In my constituency a new village with up to 3,000 houses is being built in Buckshaw, a former Royal Ordnance site, but there is no talk of a post office. We should be saying to the Government “It may be reasonable to close a post office in an area where no one is using it, but please think about areas where there is no post office footprint”. We must think more seriously about placing a clear footprint across the country, so that post offices serve the people whom they should be serving.

My constituency is one of those with large rural hinterlands, and I feel that we must deal with the problems of farmers. It is not just the turkeys that are being stuffed this Christmas; it is the farming industry in general. How on earth can people produce a litre of milk for 16p or 17p? They need a dairy industry that is sustainable and will be there in the long term. Dairy farmers need to receive at least 21p per litre to ensure the long-term viability of dairy farming. It is important for us as a Government to defend the rights of the farmer against the supermarkets and the producers, and for all sides to unite to that end. All that supermarkets and producers want to do is continually to force down the price. There is no benefit in that. Those who shop in supermarkets do not receive the benefit; the profits go to the shareholders. They are the only people who gain from attempts to drive down prices in the farming industry, and that is not good. We must guarantee a minimum farm-gate price. We must see that the countryside is looked after, and the people who do that job are those in the farming industry.

As if all that were not enough, we learn today that in France there is another question mark—over avian flu. Some dead birds are to be tested and scientists are examining the situation, which places a question mark over the poultry industry. The viability of poultry farming is in deep trouble; meanwhile, European legislation is bringing more red tape and burdens to the industry. Quite rightly, the industry—including the egg industry—and the National Farmers Union are saying that imposing new legislation is one thing, but imposing the cost directly on poultry farms is unacceptable. The industry has asked for a three-year deferment to allow it to recover without that extra burden of cost. I think it only right to ask the Government not to impose the burden now, but to decide in four years’ time whether it needs to be imposed.

Other European Union countries accept the legislation, but do not pass the burden to the poultry industry. Far from it: their Governments soak up the cost. We are putting our poultry industry at a huge disadvantage. We must recognise that we must look after people when they are in trouble, and these people are in trouble. We need the farming industry to get back on a proper footing. It has suffered so much from one crisis to another. We must let it put those crises behind it, and allow the industry to create a sustainable future. Those
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who can help are those who can put pressure on supermarkets and producers by guaranteeing a fair price.

I move on to the subject of overseas territories. I chair the all-party group on Gibraltar. It is rightly one of the biggest groups in Parliament, and it has had a strong voice. We have a Government who recognise that they got things wrong in the past. It took them quite a while, and we have had many disagreements with Secretaries of State and other Ministers—they seemed to come and go, but the Gibraltar problem continued. However, it has at last been recognised that Gibraltar should be given a clear future—that it should be allowed to become a grown-up overseas territory. That is right, and I am pleased that the Government have recognised that. The endorsement of the people of Gibraltar ensured that there is now a new treaty; we are devolving more powers to the people and Government of Gibraltar and they will be responsible for themselves. That is good.

Other overseas territories will face similar challenges. Bermuda has almost got complete powers. It is not independent—it is one of the overseas territories—but it has huge powers. Gibraltar also has huge powers. Rightly, other overseas territories, such as the British Virgin Islands, are looking to such examples. The British Virgin Islands are saying, “What is good for Bermuda and Gibraltar must be good for us.” The Turks and Caicos Islands are asking for more powers, as are Montserrat and the Cayman Islands.

Who are we to deny democracy? Who are we to deny such powers? We cannot have it both ways. Our Government say to people in Iraq, “You must have democracy,” and at the same time they try to say to those in the overseas territories, “No, you cannot have that; that’s far too much democracy for you.” Instead, we say that we will give them a choice: “No more democracy, but you can be independent.” They know, however, that they cannot be independent, so that is unfair. We must allow the skills of democracy to be developed in overseas territories. The Falklands also want more powers, and they should have them. If their people wish for independence, it should be up to them to choose that. We ought not to restrict them by stopping them making their own decisions. There is much more that we can do in respect of overseas territories, and I hope that we will take things forward.

Transport questions were debated today, but as I was unable to attend I thought that I would raise the following matter now. The Manchester to Blackpool line has overcrowded trains; many Members know about overcrowded trains. We need more trains. More importantly, we talk a lot about the environment, and the electrification of the Blackpool to Manchester line will clean up the environment. We need investment in that. We need more trains, but I plead with the Secretary of State for Transport to look at putting more investment not into more rolling stock, but into more electrification, which is also better for the environment. It is a plus that we can do that, and it is great that I can raise the issue in this debate.

In Chorley—this is also to do with the Manchester to Blackpool line—I hope that we will get a new railway station. I was talking about sustainable villages. The fact is that villages such as Buckshaw in Chorley should have a new railway station, and a post office. That village has been built on some of the 1,000 acres
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of brownfield site that used to be part of a Royal Ordnance factory; tragically, it has almost gone. We need that new railway station on the Blackpool line, and we might as well have electrification as well. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.

On Buckshaw village, the factory that used to be on that site was a main source of supply for the Ministry of Defence; it produced initiator caps and boxer caps for all explosives. I have said before that nothing goes bang without Chorley; tragically, things will now have to go bang without Chorley, because BAE Systems made the cowardly decision to close that site. A lot of empty gestures were made, as were promises of engineering jobs remaining; none of them has been kept because BAE wants to realise the land value. Decisions have been made purely on money grounds. Unfortunately, MOD Ministers, including Secretaries of State, have allowed that to happen. We are now incapable of producing a single bullet or a single shell in this country without the help of either France, the United States of America, Germany or Switzerland. We no longer have security of supply in this country in producing our own ammunition. That is a very sad state of affairs, and I hope that somebody will take this issue seriously, before the machinery is stripped out of Chorley. There still time for BAE Systems to change its mind.

Worse still, not only does BAE Systems want to close the site down and to produce ammunition elsewhere; it wants to store the ammunition in Chorley without providing a single job for the people of Chorley. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it, Mr. Deputy Speaker! So BAE is taking all the jobs away from Chorley and producing the ammunition elsewhere, yet it wants to store it all in Chorley’s facility because we still have an explosives licence. In other words, we are to be exposed to the entire risk, but given no jobs. BAE Systems should get its act together and start listening to public opinion. It should recognise that, just as the Government have a duty to this country, it has a duty to produce ammunition in this country alone, and not to be dependent on components from abroad.

I turn to Home Office issues. As we all recognise, closed circuit television has made a real difference. I would like more grants to be provided for CCTV, so that we can all benefit from that important technology. I am also fully behind the introduction of police community support officers. We have provided a huge amount of funding for CSOs, who are making a real difference, but we should not allow local authorities to cut back on community wardens. They are saying, “As you’re providing more CSOs, we will reduce the number of wardens,” when in fact, we should be seeing a bigger uniformed presence. People recognise that if more officers are visible on the streets, our streets will be safer. I hope that the Government will ensure that the provision of CSOs will not lead to a reduction in wardens, which appears to be happening at the moment.

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