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The substance of the constitution is preserved.
The Irish Prime Minister says that 90 per cent. of the constitution remains in the treaty. Giscard dEstaing says that the figure is over 90 per cent. The former Belgian Prime Minister says that it is 95 per cent. The Spanish Foreign Minister says that it is 98 per cent. This sounds like one of my charity auctions. The man who actually wrote the constitution and who knows about it said:
There have been few changes.
is a con to call this a treaty; its not. Its exactly the same: its a constitution.
The Prime Minister has said that he wants to restore trust in the Government and to listen to and involve people in decisions affecting their lives, but he has betrayed them by breaking his promise on a referendum. He is trying to commit one of the most audacious political deceptions ever attempted, but the big battle lies elsewhere. Around 70 per cent. of UK laws now originate from the EU, and as the shadow Leader of the House put it last week:
Parliament is ignored and its decisions are overridden.
All such rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions...created or arising by or under the Treaties...are without further enactment to be given legal effect...in the United Kingdom...and be enforced.
No hon. Member or Government should bind a future Parliament or hand over our parliamentary democracy
to an unelected foreign body, but that is what the 1972 Act effectively doesit must be changed, which is my long-term aim.
Shame on the Prime Minister for his dishonesty in breaking his promise. I say to my own party that our Conservative principles made Britain great, and we should trust those principles, especially on defending our Parliament.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, I think that he accused the Prime Minister of being dishonest. I do not think that that is an appropriate word. Perhaps he will withdraw or modify it.
Bring on the election, so that decent, honest British people can dump this sleazy Government, who hold so cheaply the traditions and constitutional rights that British people have won over the centuries with their blood, sweat and tears.
Disabled facilities grants are made available by local authorities to assist elderly people with disabilities to stay in their homes, and they are increasingly used to help younger people who require assistance, too. We all recognise the increased demand for adaptations. People are living longer, and a greater degree of choice is available. Most people choose to stay in their own homes rather than moving into a nursing environment. There is also an increasing technical capability to assist people and to help older people and the disabled to stay at home.
Local factors in South Derbyshire have further increased the growth of adaptations. First, the local district council, I think correctly, decided to resource its own design team to provide adaptations. The county council service had previously been subject to delays, and the district councils decision has provided more rapid progress through the design stage. Secondly, there is a strong local commitment to care in someones own home by the county council, which is welcome and which is a view that I share. Thirdly, there is the terrible physical legacy of the mining industry in South Derbyshire, which has left many people, some of whom are quite young, in need of help with adaptations in their homes. Fourthly, there is a fast-growing populationit is the fastest growing in the east midlands. Fifthly, rurality is an issue. The district is largely rural, which means that when adaptations are made, they need to be inclusivea person may need to be more self-sufficient, because it is not always possible to supplement their needs.
Government resources for the grant have doubled in the past 10 years, which is welcome. Local authorities must increase the sum provided by the Government to attempt to meet demand. Over the past two years, South Derbyshire district council has committed more than £500,000 towards the schemeit has actually contributed the majority of the funds.
The Government have been consulting on changes in the grants system, because they recognise the trends that I initially identified and the need for strategic alterations in how the money is delivered. Many of the proposed changes are welcome but may challenge the budget still furtherfor example, raising the maximum limit of the cost of works that will be funded out of the grant. Making some very welcome changes will, again, stretch resourcesfor example, removing the means test on adaptations where disabled children are involved. In South Derbyshire, that has ledI do not criticise this at allto applications from families who had previously had difficulty in getting support because of the means test. Under the new rules, some extremely costly schemes are coming forward that recognise the severe needs that those families have. There has been some sensible piloting of ways in which the budget that is available can be used more flexibly with greater co-working between agencies. A lot of useful work is going on.
Local authorities may only claim 60 per cent. of their expenditure on these grants, but would that South Derbyshire actually received that sort of sum. In fact, over the past two years it has itself contributed the majority of the costs of the scheme. As a small district council, that places its budget under steadily increasing pressure. The Government regional office attempts to arbitrate between the various bids for resources under the scheme and uses a mechanism that appears to be based largely on the number of disability living allowance and attendance allowance claimants in the area, together with a comparison with the bid from the local authority.
There are inevitably, and have been for some time, shortfalls in the councils ability to respond to the bids that it receives. Many councils, I am afraid, address that by, for example, slowing down the process by cutting back the design stage so that it takes longer to arrive at a scheme that can be delivered, or failing to promote the scheme so that people do not know that it is available. There are several ways of making the scheme costs smaller in the short term, although I am glad to say that they have not been followed by my council. However, the consequence is that it starts this financial year with £483,000-worth of commitments beyond the resources that it has available for the scheme. It has historically paid in additional resources from other parts of its capital budget to supplement the scheme; I emphasise that this is a statutory obligation, with no choice involved. The council must meet the demands that are placed on it. The only flexibility it has is to delay the process and increase the backlog. It is expected that at the end of this financial year the scale of unmet demand will probably reach £750,000.
What is desperately needed is first, in the short term, a discussion between the regional office and the council about the resources that it needs on a more realistic basis; and secondly, more globally, that the comprehensive spending review allocates sufficient resources to this very important budget head within the Department for Communities and Local Governmentone that helps the most needy people in many of our communities.
I want to spend a moment or two on another matter which I am surprised that other Members have not raised. I have had increasing numbers of complaints from my constituents who are British Gas consumers
about inaccuracies and difficulties in their bills. I have been greatly helped by Energywatch in pursuing issues with the company to resolve disputes that have in some cases even led to threats of court action and other consequences. That has led me to reflect on the changes that the Government have already set out for dealing with consumer representation in this area and has highlighted further work that we need to do. The removal of an organisation such as Energywatch, which we intend, cannot be left as a matter for the marketplace. The assumption is that we now have a free market in which informed consumers can make their own judgments and in which, if dissatisfied by either the quality of customer service or supply, they simply shift. I do not think that my constituents are unusual; a small number of people have that flexibility and are willing to play the game, but many wish to rely on one company and expect to receive a competent, adequate service and to be billed correctly.
If the advocacy currently available is removed, people will need additional support by other means. One of those means will be to turn to the offices of people such as me for assistance, which, of course, I will be happy to provide. Others will go to the citizens advice bureau and seek help there. What is at least required is the application of clear complaint handling standards to the energy companies; a comprehensive collection of complaint data, so that it is understood how the companies are performing; clear advice on where a consumer can get help, not simply saying to them, You have got to talk further to the energy company; and an independent audit of that complaint procedure to see whether standards are being maintained. To leave many consumersthose who contact me tend to be olderto the hands of the free market in the hope that customer service standards will rise in a competitive environment is simply unreasonable.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Like the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), I shall concentrate primarily on a local issue, but never having taken part in one of these end-of-term debates before, it is a great pleasure to hear such a variety of topics raised under a rather arcane procedure. As I understand it, every speaker so far has pledged to vote against the Adjournment, and as the whole of the House is on a one-line Whip, the Government might lose the vote. I wait with bated breath to see how this works.
I would like to pick out two issues raised so far. First, it is remarkable that there is such cross-party concern about the so-called reform treaty of the European Union. The referendum campaign is gathering pace; it goes far beyond those who might be described as the usual suspects. I particularly welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who pointed out that the Government seem to brand as some sort of extremist anyone who raises any objection about any of the treaties, when in fact, the points that she raised, and those raised by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), were reasonable.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) declared himself in favour of a referendum, which demonstrates that one does not need to be a Eurosceptic to be in favour of one. It is incumbent on the Deputy Leader of the House to explain not why the treaty is a marginally different arrangementthat the constitution has been dropped and replaced by an amending treatybut the substantial difference between the effect of the constitutional treaty and what is now proposed. If she can explain that, she might begin to explain why it was right to have a referendum on the constitutional treaty and why it is wrong to have one on this new arrangement. I suspect that she cannot begin to explain that because the effect of the reformed treaty is almost identical, if not actually identical, to the previous one. It is dishonest to pretend that there should not be a referendum, and that there is not as strong a case for a referendum as there was before, as conceded by the Prime Minister.
The other point I wish to pick up on relates to the comments of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) about the problems of returning officers and the management of modernised election processes. Our returning officers have been grossly overloaded with far too much change. They are overburdened, especially by the postal voting problem. I have received a letter from the returning officer in each of my districts expressing deep concern. Both complain that there is insufficient print capacity to handle the postal voting in a general election. People complained about late postal votes at the local elections, when half the numbers who vote in general elections turn out. When we have a general election or a referendum, the system will be grossly overstretched, especially with the additional requirement for personal verification of every vote and matching the signatures on the electoral register with those that come in with the postal votes. It is far too big a logistical problem and there are not enough competent printers to deal with the print load that is required almost all on one day throughout the country. Unless the Government tackle that, the next general election will be beset by the same problems that led a judge in previous local elections in Birmingham to say that our system was the equivalent of that of a banana republic.
I want to concentrate briefly on the closure of a GP surgery in my constituency. In recent months, I have applied for an Adjournment debate on the topic and I make no apology for raising the matter today. Dedham in my constituency has an elderly population, many people without cars and no public transport infrastructure. In 2002, it was announced that the general practice outpost in the village would close. General practice services have been provided in there for more than 100 years. Although there was a stay of execution, the facility has now closed.
The key point is that a neighbouring practice in a neighbouring primary care trust provided services. A bureaucratic log jam then resulted in what amounts to a dispute between two health authorities as they tryor do not tryto resolve the matter. Constable practice, which provided the services, is in East Bergholt in Suffolk in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), and Dedham is part of North East Essex PCT. The news of the closure provoked an outcry and a substantial campaign. The Dedham patients steering group was
established to save GP facilities in the village. It mobilised the community and persuaded a local landowner generously to provide some green landdevelopers call it white landas a site for building some social housing in conjunction with the Colne Housing Society, which is a housing association. A new GP surgery is piggybacked on the development. It was part funded by the East of England Development Agency to the tune of £95,000 and by Essex county councils communities fund in the expectation that the local NHS would agree, as it said it would, to continue to provide GP services.
Constable practice then broke its promise. It pains me to say this, but my comments reflect huge local frustration: the North East Essex PCT has been more obstructive than helpful. There is much good will and financial commitment from the local community. There are ways in which to reduce the premises costs to make the additional cost to the NHS of providing satellite services from another GP practice marginal. I have raised the matter with the strategic health authority and North East Essex PCT. I warned them that, if the problem was not resolved, there would be a row. I am now prepared to have that row.
There is no agreed mechanism for the transfer
of money from the Suffolk primary care trust to the North East Essex primary care trust. That is perfectly true, but that was not a reason for giving up. He explained that if 1,000 patients transferred to a north-east Essex GP practice run on a satellite service, that would cost the NHS £330,000. However, that ignores the fact that cheap premises had been provided and that the NHS as a whole has to bear the costs of treating those patients anyway. The additional cost is much less.
Dr. Zollinger-Read then explained that life expectancy in Dedham is 82.3 years, as opposed to other areas, where it is as low as 70.1 years, as though that were an argument for making 80-year-old people travel further for their general practice servicesin this case miles and miles further, to a neighbouring village. In fact, he simply highlighted the need for continuing the GP services promised to the people of Dedham, a higher proportion of whom are elderly and live longer, through no fault of their own. Moreover, surprising as it may seem, the Jarman underprivileged area index, which is a standard measurement of deprivation, shows that Dedham is by no means the most privileged part of my constituency. Indeed, it is more than halfway down the list of wards in my constituency. Therefore, it should be treated more fairly.
I also received a copy of a letter to the primary care trust from the Riverside health centre, which is a neighbouring GP practice in Manningtree. The proposal is for the Riverside health centre to operate satellite services in the new building at a much lower cost than was quoted by the primary care trust. I am simply not satisfied that the proposal has been considered in good faith. The letter says:
We are extremely excited about the possibility of extending our practice boundaries to include Dedham and would look favourably on staffing the new building at Dedham...We would be prepared to open our list to Dedham patients, subject to
agreement with the relevant authorities and subject to successful negotiation we could undertake to staff the new premises at completion.
The Riverside health centre has made it clear that from as little as between £30,000 and £40,000 a year, with up-front start-up costs of around £30,000, at least a part-time service could be provided on the premises. I do not know why the health authority has been so obstructive.
One problem is that, because the proposal depends on the transfer of people from one authority to another, some of the capitation payment will be lost. Ministers should address that issue, and I hope that the health authorities will support me in my representations to them to resolve the issue.
I would like to concentrate on an issue in my constituency that I have already raised in an Adjournment debate, which concerns View Lane park in Stanley and the absolute scandal of Derwentside district council selling more than half of the park to a development company called Mistal Homes, for a centre for the treatment of adults with autism. The company made an unsolicited bid to the council to buy more than half of the park. The bid was fiercely objected to by local residents, who value the green lung in their town centre. Despite that the council steamrollered ahead, as has become all too commonplace, and not only gave Mistal Homes planning permission, but sold it half the park. It did that even though the district council has no responsibility whatever for the provision of autism services or adult services; that is the function of the county council.
When the council took that decision, it did not look at the track record of the company. In fact, it had no track record, because it was registered at Companies House only in January 2006. Nor did it take a close look at the directors of the company, including a Mr. Hampshire, who declared to Companies House that he was a director of no other companies apart from Mistal. In fact, he is also a director of several other companies, one of which, Chartnell Ltd, is late in filing its accounts and Companies House has proposed that it be struck off. A post in the London Gazette last September suggested that the company in question was going to be wound up under the terms of the Insolvency Act 1986.
I raised my concerns and those of angry local residents with the Audit Commission earlier this year. I wrote to the commission on 1 February 2007. Alas, I did not get a reply until 4 July, as a result of a follow-up letter to the chief executive. I finally got a letter on 10 July from Paul Heppell, who described himself as the audit manager. He said in his letter that he had noted my
concern about the adequacy of assurances gained by the Council over the potential buyer of the land.
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