Previous Section Index Home Page

26 July 2007 : Column 1124

The first is the 90-day consultation period that was introduced by the Maastricht treaty. In the opinion of many, it does not help the businesses concerned. At the moment we are in a consultation period for Remploy, which started after the decision to close a significant number of factories had been announced. That is negotiation after the event, and there is a huge difference between consultation and negotiation. Workers have to negotiate on the back foot, and that is the wrong way to do it. I urge the Government to consider early-day motion 1689 on UK manufacturing, which has cross-party support and calls for a level playing field in consultation. It calls for workers to be involved before decisions are made by boards of directors, because otherwise one is starting from a losing position. I have been involved directly and indirectly in situations where workers are asked for their opinion after a closure announcement has been made. It is almost impossible to change that decision. I hope that in the Remploy case there will be some change, but we await events.

Another important thing that is happening throughout the country, and in my constituency as we speak, is the buy-out of businesses by multinationals in order to asset-strip. They buy the smaller units in places such as my constituency and announce closure, and then there is a 90-day consultation—not on how to save the factory but on how to close it. Again, the decision is made without consulting the work force. The multinationals have the power to decide the fate of those small factories, and the workers are left to worry about their future. I urge the Government to look at that EDM and to enforce the Warwick agreement, which says that we should consult and work with employees before decisions are made.

The second issue that I want to raise concerns policing and community safety. I welcome today’s announcement about the work to be carried out with the youths of our country. Preventive is obviously better than reactive and that is a huge step forward. I support the creation of police community support officers and the antisocial behaviour structure, but I would ask the Government to look at an issue that has been brought to the attention of the House many times: the need for a police presence on the streets. We have seen reports recently that as much as 73 per cent. of police time is spent on bureaucracy—behind a desk, not out on the street. I have spoken to local inspectors and chief inspectors recently, and they agree that too much time is spent behind a desk. To drive through an area of a constituency is not to police the area. Travelling through streets at 40 or 50 mph to get back to the station to fill out a report is not policing the area. We need to ensure that the police presence is where it is most needed: out on the streets.

There are some allied areas that we really need to work on to support the police and our communities. The importance of youth workers was mentioned in today’s statement. We cannot expect people to take on those roles with a contract of one, three or five months. It must be a job of work. Yes, it is a vocation, but they need security of employment. If we start a project, let us ensure that it has a long time to run, because we need those people.

The other significant problem in my constituency, and I guess many others, is a huge lack of social
26 July 2007 : Column 1125
workers. In recent years, we have had social workers from Canada, Romania and Poland coming into our boroughs to work with families, but—and I mean no disrespect to their training or the way that they gained their skills—as they are without community knowledge and the link to that community, it is very difficult for them to have a real impact on helping, sustaining and supporting the families. In my opinion, that knowledge is priceless. It is essential to know the people whom one is dealing with.

Teachers have an important part to play. We have spoken many times about children with learning difficulties. Dyslexia or learning problems that are not identified at an early age can lead to the disfranchisement of children. Primary heads have told me that we need to start at primary school level; it is too late when pupils reach secondary school. We have all heard of cases where children reach the age of 11 and then just disappear into the ether. We need to start at primary school level and really deal with young children, getting families involved but ensuring that they are part of the community.

It is important to have a consultation process with young people. When I was 13—a long, long time ago—one was still a child at 13 or 14. Now they are young adults. The whole attitude of the youth culture is completely different. In order to get them at primary school level, with the parents, to talk about the problems of drugs and alcohol and so many other things, we need to deliver at a very early age. We need to ensure that the whole support mechanism—social work, youth work and the police—works together for the benefit of all the community.

The third and last issue that I want to raise is apprenticeship training. A report on the importance of apprenticeship training came out from the other place in the past couple of days. As an apprentice a long time ago, I know that working alongside other skilled people is so important. I have asked questions over the past couple of months about the structure of the apprentice system and I know that the numbers have increased significantly. I think that there are 250,000 apprenticeships now, but where do they lead? Are they work-based? Are they in the crafts and skills that we need in our communities? My community is looking at the regeneration of a former steelworks site, and we need bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers, but I know that if I went to the jobcentre tomorrow and asked for five electricians, they would not be there. We train in retail and lots of things, but targeted training is what we need.

We talk about where we learn the skills, and in comprehensive education there was a structure by which someone could take woodwork, metalwork, catering and engineering. However, we have moved away from that to ICT. I was not sure what it meant until I asked my son—information communication technology, but what does that mean? I am not sure. I know what woodwork and metalwork are; I can guess about that. We need to get back to basics in that respect and comprehensive education offered that and can still offer it. We need to look at how we train at an early age to encourage young people to go into properly structured apprenticeships. I cannot stress strongly
26 July 2007 : Column 1126
enough the importance of work-based training. Experience at the face is important, and I stress that again and again.

Having said those three things, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and every right hon. and hon. Member a peaceful and, let us hope, successful recess. See you in October.

4.2 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I agree with comments of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) about proper workplace apprenticeships for the most basic skills that we need in our engineering industry. Those skills are lacking at the moment.

I will gallop through my speech to give other hon. Members time to contribute. I will raise my concerns about the conduct of the local election that took place in my constituency on 3 May. I do not think that I can do any better than to start by quoting early-day motion 1435 in my name. It says:

A number of factors on that day caused considerable concern to me and others. Although an understanding of electoral law is not the most exciting of subjects, unless our council officers, presiding officers or the police are trained in electoral law, how can we ever hope to protect our democracy? The assistant returning officer in Bradford argued that treating was not an offence and stated that, as long as the cost of the food and drink that is offered to voters on election day is included in the election returns, it is not illegal. That is absurd.

Worryingly, the confusion goes beyond the returning officer. In dealing with allegations of treating, West Yorkshire police, in a recent e-mail to my office, took the view that reference should be made to

The e-mail continued:

However, in dealing with the same allegation, the Electoral Commission states its position as follows:

The sad reality is that, when the returning officer, the police and the Electoral Commission all take the view that they are not responsible, nothing is done—and nor will it be. Treating is a crime and if the perpetrators are
26 July 2007 : Column 1127
allowed to get away with it, I am afraid that the practice will continue and possibly be accepted as the norm, eventually becoming decriminalised.

Similarly, confusion regarding responsibility between the police and the electoral services in Bradford was highlighted by the issue of the use of discriminatory language. Over the public address system—used only in areas inhabited predominantly by the Asian community—those acting for the Conservative candidate, Zafar Ali, called for people to “vote for their Muslim brother”. My constituents were told that that was their religious duty. When that was reported to both the electoral services and the police, they each said that it was a matter for the other. Again, the result was that nothing was done.

Intimidating crowds stood outside polling stations discouraging people from entering to vote. Again, contemporaneous complaints to both the police and the electoral services resulted in each insisting that responsibility rested with the other. Again, the net result was that intimidation was allowed to continue unchallenged.

Much worse is the fact that, recently, people with no party affiliation whatsoever came to my office to tell me that they had been visited by Zafar Ali and told by him not to mention to the police the fact that he did indeed ask them to “vote for their Muslim brother.” I have had to guarantee their anonymity because they fear violent repercussions for them and their family should their identity be known. Clearly, the breaking of ranks is feared more than the weight of the law.

I was also recently visited by a member of the clergy in my constituency who told me that the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Keighley was concerned by the fact that he was having to work with “unsavoury characters in the Asian community.” Indeed, for once, I agree with him. Of the main supporters of the Conservative candidate in Keighley Central in May, one has been investigated for money laundering and another declared bankrupt on at least two occasions. They are the small minority, but they are running the show.

To add to this shady political cocktail, there was a recent announcement by the local organiser of the British National party in support of the Conservative candidate at the next general election. The announcement said that the BNP would not field a candidate. This coalition of the extremists may appear to be a strange alliance, and it certainly is. The relationship between extremists—they need to feed off each other in order to survive—is not new. However, it is the first time that we have seen it in Keighley and the first time that it has, through electoral manipulation, threatened our electoral system.

I do not fear elections; I thrive on them. Nor do I fear losing. I am prepared to accept the views of the electorate when they are allowed to express them freely and within the law. However, I am not prepared passively to stand by and allow extremists, from wherever they hail, to take advantage of our elections and get away with clear infringements of the law. I do not believe that the type of incidents witnessed in Keighley on 3 May are confined to Keighley. Similar allegations have arisen across the country. However, the situation can never be challenged when our authorities
26 July 2007 : Column 1128
are untrained and unprepared on questions of electoral law and, more importantly, unwilling to act.

As a society, are we prepared to accept the blurring of the lines and allow inappropriate practices to become the norm? Are we prepared passively to allow a misguided minority, hell-bent on victory whatever the cost, to rule? At the heart of British society is a sense of decency, tolerance and compromise. The fairness of our legal system inspires confidence, here and abroad. It is naive to believe that everyone will simply act according to the spirit of the laws, and there can be nothing more naive than to think that turning a blind eye or passing the buck will solve the problem.

Postal voting can be—and is, for most people—a real asset, but there have been irregularities. The answer in the Bradford district, which includes my constituency, was for candidates and agents to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct, based on an assumption of decency and honesty. It never seemed to cross the mind of the police and officials that it might be ignored, and neither group made any preparation to deal with the law-breakers. We must accommodate the desire for easy access to the polls, but we must balance that with the real threat of prosecution when there is any infringement of the law. Realistically, we can only hope to reach that stage when there is a coherent and clear line of responsibility, supported by the will to act. I have not finished my speech, but given your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will bring my remarks to a close.

4.11 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who is absolutely right. The chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, is working closely with the Government to toughen the way in which electoral returning officers do their job, and to put regional super-returning officers into the system above them, so that returning officers do not have the final word in matters of law. In my constituency, as in Keighley, corrupt and incompetent decisions have been taken by returning officers.

Mr. Jenkin: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Bob Spink: No, I do not think that I can, because of the time. I apologise for my voice; I lost it at a party in my garden last Saturday, which greatly pleased 400 of my constituents. We raised £4,000 clear profit for charity. My constituency faces a number of threats, not least those posed by over-development and designs on our green belt. An aggravating factor is that we get more and more houses but no new supporting infrastructure and no real extra capacity, such as doctors, schools or dentists. Our local roads suck. The ever increasing congestion hits us all, and the lack of proper, reliable access for Canvey is a growing problem for many reasons. Not least among them is the public safety issue of the possibility of having to evacuate the island because of global warming and rising sea levels, which I am watching carefully. In fact, just yesterday I had a meeting with the Environment Agency about improving Canvey’s flood defences.

The loss of more Castle Point post offices, on top of those that have already had to close, is an avoidable tragedy, but it will happen. Hon. Members will find
26 July 2007 : Column 1129
that an average of three or four additional post offices will close in every constituency in the country. Those post offices will be put to the sword because of the European Union. Article 88 of the 1997 EU treaty of Amsterdam obliges Parliament to seek the permission of Brussels if we want to subsidise our own post offices. After lengthy negotiations, we were finally permitted to subsidise them with a measly £50 million a year for three years. Another 2,500 to 3,000 post offices will be closed, hurting the fabric of our communities and vulnerable individuals. That is one reason why I became the chairman of the Campaign for an Independent Britain—to fight for British interests. More of that later.

Let me address one final local issue: Calor wants to store liquefied natural gas on Canvey Island. It would be imported to Canvey, via a boom arm on a jetty, from ships on the Thames. More than 100,000 tonnes of LNG will be held in two huge new tanks, each of them over 130 ft high. This would bring significant risk to the mainland, as well as to Canvey people.

I asked Parliament for a public inquiry, and I asked for it to be held on Canvey island. Although there was a bit of shuffling, both those requests were met. The inquiry starts on 30 October and I will, as always, represent everyone on Canvey, irrespective of their politics. I will work tirelessly for the public interest. I have already submitted to the inspector more than 100 individual letters of objection. At the inquiry I will use the important 9,000 signature petition compiled by the Canvey Island Independent party, and I will use the People Against Methane referendum.

My constant questioning of Ministers in Parliament has revealed evidence that may greatly assist our cause. I will present all that evidence at the inquiry. I wanted to present it now, but there is no time. I will do all I can to stop the Canvey LNG plans, because the human and environmental consequences are not just unacceptable; they are unthinkable.

I turn to a couple of national issues. Children’s palliative care is dear to my heart, and I am sorry to say that those services are facing cuts and closures. They include children’s hospices, the Diana community nursing teams, home nursing teams and a raft of other voluntary and statutory agencies. As a result, children and their families who need help—families with terminally ill children—are still not getting that help. I asked for and helped to get £27 million stop-gap funding, for which I thank the Government, and a long-term review. I had intended to elaborate, but I shall cut that part of my speech as well.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s new support for changing the way honours are awarded. It is about time. People such as hard-working volunteers, doctors, nurses and teachers deserve honours. They are the real stars who make our country special and great. Those such as Joyce Long, Joan Lythgoe, Eddie Stacy and John Brennan in my constituency who, like many others, have worked selflessly for years deserve recognition. The public are sickened by awards to celebrities, who already have obscene amounts of money and adulation for doing relatively little and often setting bad examples. We must do more to reward and encourage those who do wonderful selfless work in
26 July 2007 : Column 1130
our communities, and not insult them by giving gratuitous awards to celebs. Hug a luvvy is off the agenda.

Inevitably, I come to Europe. Seven in 10 British people want looser ties with the European Union. They want a transparent, mature and constructive relationship, but they want Britain to be put first. They want a free Britain. Enter the Campaign for an Independent Britain, the CIB. It is the UK’s oldest significant Eurosceptic organisation—indeed, it invented the word Eurosceptic. It provides co-ordination and unity for the broadly Eurosceptic national organisations that represent the opinion of 70 per cent. of the British public.

The CIB has members from across the political spectrum, as the umbrella organisation serving many excellent groups such as the Campaign Against Euro Federalism, the UK Independence party, the Freedom Association, the Bruges group and many others. It is those groups, not MPs, who are truly defending Britain, trying to regain the primacy of Parliament, and trying to stop the uncontrolled EU immigration that damages race relations and is adding to our housing crisis, with up to half a million immigrants a year entering the UK from Europe. It is those Eurosceptic groups that are trying to stop the haemorrhaging of our money and jobs to Europe.

Finally, I turn to the treaty and say plainly that it is a constitution. Only 10 of the 250 proposals are different, so 96 per cent. of the text is unchanged. The articles have simply been renumbered. German Chancellor Merkel said:

Next Section Index Home Page