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26 Jan 2007 : Column 1741

I return to my original question. Why are we doing this? Against my better judgment, I quite enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). I thought that the friendly scepticism that he directed at the Bill—I will not call it opposition—was reasonably measured. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) introduced a topic that I did not really want to pursue—the Scotland-England issue. Perhaps I could expand it and say a little about Northern Ireland, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown).

We talk of Northern Ireland as having had problems in the past, yet we say we want to keep the Union and keep it in the same time zone. The hon. Member for South Suffolk said that he would accept an amendment to remove the separate provisions for Scotland, Wales and Ireland. If that does not happen, old sores—and, in some instances, not-so-old sores—may be exposed again. The Republic of Ireland may end up in one time zone while Northern Ireland is in the same zone as the south-east of England.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend mentioned the constructive speech of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who dealt ably with the Scotland-England question. Does not the 285 majority in favour of abandoning the 1968-71 experiment demonstrate that there was a strong consensus in the House at the time? It was not just Members from Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England who believed that the experiment had not worked; the consensus must have been much broader. That figure of 285 is important, and we should bear it in mind.

John Robertson: I agree, and I note that the Minister agrees with me about the speech of the hon. Member for Wealden. Yes, it was some majority—there is no doubt about that—and the fact that it was an all-party majority shows that a good many people thought we should end the arrangement.

Mr. MacNeil: May I make it clear that concern for the Union does not motivate every Member who opposes the Bill? My motivation is to ensure that Scotland is not bounced into the wrong time zone. The Union is not an issue.

John Robertson: I hate this—I agree with the hon. Gentleman again. I have a feeling that, if the Bill goes through in its present state, with clauses 5, 6 and 7, it could be the Conservative party's poll tax again. [Laughter.] Conservative Members laugh, but I have to point out that you had one Member elected in the last election, one Member in the previous election and none in the one before that. Therefore, you should not be laughing. You did something that the people of Scotland did not agree with—we were used as guinea pigs. You forced something on us that we did not want. The change of hours in the Bill is not wanted by the people of Scotland. If I am right and you force this Bill—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman might know why I have intervened. He has imputed a lot of things to me by saying “you”, of which I am certainly not guilty.

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John Robertson: You are absolutely right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise. When I said “you”, I meant everyone in the House.

It is important that the Conservative party realises the kind of splits that such a Bill can cause. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for South Suffolk has introduced the Bill with the best intentions and honestly believes that it is the right thing to do, but it will be perceived by people north of the border, in Northern Ireland and in Wales as derisory. If the Conservative party in England wishes to become the English Conservative party, it should say so.

Mr. MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it might become not just the English Conservative party, but the party south of the Wash and south of the Severn?

John Robertson: That is a good point.

I have been looking at the times of daylight and when the cut-offs are. The hon. Member for Wealden made a good point about people from the south of England. When we look at some of the cities in the north, there is not a big difference between the north of England and even Cardiff, which is not exactly the north of England, and the borders of Scotland. The difference between Aberdeen and Newcastle is not great. Therefore, Conservative Members have not thought about their own representation within England, let alone Scotland. It would be much better if we were to look at the matter in the round as a United Kingdom Parliament. We should accept or reject the Bill today on the premise that we are voting for a Bill for the whole of the United Kingdom.

I and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway feel strongly about the Act of Union. I have said before in a speech that there is only one Unionist party in this Parliament and it is the Labour party, because the other parties have shown on many occasions that they disregard other parts of the United Kingdom, not just Scotland, and it has come back to haunt them. They need only look at their representation in Scotland and Wales to see how the Welsh and Scots feel about them. If they want to reverse that, it is time they started to look at themselves—as they did when I was a young boy—as the Conservative and Unionist party. It is still the only party in Scotland that ever got more than 50 per cent. of the vote in a general election. That was in the late 1950s. By the 1990s, it was gone. They have to ask themselves why. It is Bills such as this that are causing part of the problem.

I will leave some time for the Minister to say a few words. I hope that he will answer all the questions and all the problems that Members have raised. However, I say to Members—do not support the Bill.

2.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on his success in the private Members' ballot and on his excellent speech introducing the Bill. During the debate, much has been made of the fact that this issue divides Scotland and England. For the avoidance of
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any doubt about my geographic origin, in case my classic cockney accent is confusing anyone, as the annunciator is showing, my constituency is Poplar and Canning Town in east London. However, I am speaking for the Government and I can assure the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who asked a question earlier, that that includes the Secretary of State for Transport.

The Scottish question is a real one. It was dealt with effectively in the constructive contribution of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). It is true that the Union is under threat but, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) mentioned, even the Scottish National party opposes this measure. It might have been sympathetic towards it if it had thought that it might help to secure its final objective of independence for Scotland. However, the suggestion from the nationalist Benches that the hon. Member for South Suffolk was Darth Vader in another guise might have been stretching the compliment too far.

Mr. MacNeil: The inevitability of Scottish independence is such that we do not need this measure.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman believes his own propaganda.

Mr. Hands: The Minister has carefully skirted over the fact that he is the Minister for London. Will he comment on the fact that the London assembly is backing the Bill on a cross-party basis? One of the reasons for that is that night flights into London cause misery to millions of west Londoners in particular, with such flights arriving at 4.30 am. The Bill would have the effect that they would arrive at 5.30 am, thereby giving millions of Londoners an additional hour’s sleep. I am intrigued as to why the Minister for London is opposed to the Bill.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman accurately points out that I have the honour of being the appointed Minister for London. I and other Members have been serving on the Greater London Authority Bill Committee for the past few weeks, in which we have debated many issues relating to the GLA, the Mayor and the assembly. As the hon. Gentleman knows, sometimes the Government have agreed with the Mayor and at other times they have agreed with the Assembly, depending on the weight of the arguments deployed in respect of the various clauses in that Bill and the issues involved. The fact that the assembly is in favour and the fact that the Mayor has pronounced in favour are significant points of opinion that we would be foolish not to take into account.

Many wider questions have been raised by Members in the debate, which I will try to address, although I think that time will defeat me. However, some of them are significant questions, and I do not wish to detract
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in any way from many of the strong arguments put by the hon. Member for South Suffolk and other Members.

Mr. Dismore: I wish to put to my hon. Friend the Minister the same point that I put to the promoter of the Bill on the importance of recognising the rights of minorities in our community. In particular, is my hon. Friend aware of the problems that this change could cause to Orthodox Jewish people living in London, as elsewhere? In winter, it would not be possible even to commence morning prayers until about 8 am, which might very well lead to people being late for school or work, bearing in mind that prayers can last up to an hour. In summer, double summer time would mean that the Sabbath would not end until about midnight.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend, who represents Hendon, has a very strong reputation for representing the interests of the Jewish community in his constituency. He makes a point that he raised earlier with the hon. Member for South Suffolk. It is a significant point—as is that made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham—and it must be borne in mind.

Mr. MacNeil: I congratulate the Minister on taking on board opinion from the fringes of the United Kingdom, such as London, and on giving it some weight.

Jim Fitzpatrick: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall say in response to that that I have allowed myself to be distracted.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk raised a number of strong arguments in support of his Bill, and there is no doubt that the proposed measure is worthy of serious consideration. In fact, it is so worthy of consideration that we tend to examine the same, or a similar, proposition every few decades—and we are discussing it again today. If there was any disappointing aspect of his speech, it was his glossing over of the last substantial vote in the House on this issue in 1971. I have referred to that in a couple of interventions. There was a free vote and it resulted in a majority of 285 in favour of abandoning the experiment that had been taking place. There must have been some weight behind that decision if, after having lived through the experiment for three years, so many Members in all parts of the House were persuaded to say, “We want to go away from it”—and Portugal did exactly the same after it experienced four years of such an experiment.

If there had been strong support in the House today for the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, more Members would have supported his closure motion, which would have secured an opportunity to move the Bill into Committee for consideration. However, there are a number of points that I want to put on the record before we get to that point—

It being half past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 2 February.

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Remaining Private Members’ Bills

Infrastructure Audit (Housing Development) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 2 March.

Cluster Munitions (Prohibition of Development and Acquisition) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 18 May.

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Unemployment (North Northamptonshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate on the worrying trend of increased unemployment in north Northamptonshire, which provides me with the opportunity to put my concerns to the Minister. I thank him for his attendance and I look forward to his response to my concerns and suggestions. He is a fine, fair-minded and able Minister, and I am sure that we will have a constructive debate. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) is here to give his views to the Minister, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He works tirelessly on his constituents’ behalf, and I note that he, too, has grave concerns about the rising level of unemployment in north Northamptonshire.

I should say at the outset that I am not trying to score party political points through this debate; I merely want to highlight the facts to the Minister and urge the Government to take action to reverse the rise in unemployment in north Northamptonshire. In the Wellingborough constituency, unemployment has risen by 19 per cent. since this time last year. Unfortunately, 42 other constituencies in the United Kingdom saw an even greater increase last year. Some 1,536 people in Wellingborough now claim jobseeker’s allowance— 2.8 per cent. more than did so in December 1997. The facts are there, and it is clear that unemployment in Wellingborough is higher now than it was in December 1997. The same is true of 82 other constituencies.

The Labour party’s 1997 election manifesto stated the following:

There is nothing in that that I would disagree with. The present Government inherited a healthy and growing economy. As the Chancellor likes to point out at every opportunity, the economy continues to grow. So why do we have rising unemployment in north Northamptonshire? Something has gone wrong somewhere: if a Government have inherited a healthy economy, unemployment should not continue to rise. Labour’s 1997 manifesto promises have not materialised in Wellingborough, for whatever reason. We have a problem, and it is time for the Government to recognise it and do something about it. I am not interested in hearing Government spin and rhetoric on these clear facts; I just want to know why things have gone wrong and what we can all do to reverse this worrying trend.

Of course, there is one clear and major explanation for rising unemployment in Wellingborough—the decline of the manufacturing industry. Northamptonshire has historically been a manufacturing county, and it is that sector that has provided so many of the population’s
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jobs over the years. Manufacturing industry is, of course, the engine house of the British economy. Without it, there could be no public services—the very public services of which the Government like to boast. None the less, because of the rapid decline in manufacturing jobs under this Government, those jobs are no longer available to the workers of Wellingborough.

In 1991, 32 per cent. of employees’ jobs in Wellingborough were in manufacturing. In 1997, that figure had fallen by only 1 per cent., to 31 per cent. However, by 2005 only 19 per cent. of employees’ jobs were in manufacturing industries in the constituency. That huge decrease has had a knock-on effect on the number of people unemployed and those on jobseeker’s allowance in Wellingborough.

A 40 per cent. reduction in the number of people employed in manufacturing in Wellingborough should be of great concern not only locally but nationally. At the beginning of 2005, the British Chambers of Commerce stated, in response to figures for industrial and manufacturing output produced by the Office for National Statistics:

In December of last year, in response to the October 2006 manufacturing output figures, the BCC stated:

It is clear that manufacturing industry will continue to decline in this country, and will do so even more given the recent increase in interest rates.

The Government need to take manufacturing industry seriously and create an environment in which it can expand rather than contract. One of our problems in Wellingborough is that we do not have many large companies. Instead we have many small to medium-sized companies. When one of those closes down, it causes a faint ripple through the county, but does not appear on the national stage and therefore no major action is taken. But after a series of medium sized companies have closed, the effects gain momentum and have huge implications for employment in the constituency.

Small and medium-sized companies are much more affected by the bureaucracy and red tape of Government regulations than their larger counterparts are. Businesses in my constituency are suffering and failing because they are being strangled by the enormous amount of bureaucracy and red tape imposed on them. Labour’s election promise in 1997 was to cut unnecessary red tape for small businesses, but I am often approached by people with businesses in my constituency that are struggling.

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