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18 Dec 2007 : Column 769

There are well-documented precedents of compensation. When WPC Yvonne Fletcher was murdered near the Libyan embassy in London, compensation was sought for her family. When an airliner was blown up over Niger and 170 French citizens were killed, the French demanded compensation and refused to support the lifting of sanctions until it was paid. Rightly, the British and American Governments jointly demanded compensation for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. But when it comes to victims of Libyan-sponsored terror here in the United Kingdom, rather than making demands for compensation, the Foreign Office has campaigned to have sanctions against the Libyans lifted—it has twisted arms to make sure that they were lifted. The most bitter irony of all is that the Foreign Office has now sanctioned the sale of arms from this country to Libya. According to the records in this House, over the past two and a half years in standard individual export licences alone £50 million-worth of armaments has been sold by the United Kingdom to the Libyan Government, and that country has still not even apologised for the harm and suffering it caused to citizens of the United Kingdom.

I would like the Minister to seek an explanation from the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister as to why in a recent letter to one of the victims’ groups in Northern Ireland the Government said that as far as they are concerned the case is closed. If war can be conducted against the Taliban and their assets can be frozen, and if we can go into Afghanistan to pursue terrorists, then at least Libya should be made to pay for the harm and hurt it has caused the people of the United Kingdom by sponsoring terrorism in this country for so many years.

I want briefly to raise one other matter. Over last weekend, another three Orange halls in Northern Ireland were destroyed, making an average of three per month over the past year and more than 200 in total since the sectarian campaign began of destroying what are in many places the only local community facility—although they are attached to the Orange Order, they are used by a wide section of the Northern Ireland community. Because of the number and widespread nature of the attacks, it has been virtually impossible for the people who run the halls to obtain insurance. Therefore, many halls scattered around Northern Ireland are lying derelict, burnt out and ruined—and of course every ruined building is an encouragement for those who want to continue such sectarian behaviour to do so, because they can see the highly visible results of what they do.

The Government had promised the Orange Order that if it was not possible to arrange private schemes they would look again at the issuing of Chief Constable certificates, which would open the door to compensation. Currently, to get a certificate it must be proved that at least three people have done the deed—often, halls are in the middle of the country and the deeds are done at night when no one is around, so it is impossible to establish that—or that it has been done by a proscribed organisation, but no proscribed organisation, regardless of how militant it might be, will confess to being involved in such a sectarian campaign. The result is that many of those halls are left empty and derelict.

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The Government have not honoured their promise to the Orange Order of some time ago that if private insurance cover could not be obtained they would look at how to ease the way and review Chief Constable certificates. I ask the Minister to establish what has happened in respect of that promise and to ensure that it is fulfilled in 2008.

3.28 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is not in her place, because I want to take on her contribution to this debate regarding reorganisation in Cheshire. She attacked the decision announced today to replace the existing seven local authorities—Cheshire county council and the six district councils—with two unitary authorities, and she supports Cheshire county council’s campaign to replace those seven local authorities with one unitary authority.

Cheshire county council’s campaign has been predicated on the view that that option saves it, which is wrong because it actually abolishes it. My hon. Friend attacked our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government by saying that this decision was hers and hers alone. However, it has been through the full process of government and has Treasury approval, so my hon. Friend is wrong on that account, too. She then tried to portray the decision to create two unitary authorities as costing Cheshire council tax payers money. That is wrong—a two-unitary solution in Cheshire will actually save them money. More money will go into local services, and there is a possibility that the council tax will be reduced.

My hon. Friend then attacked the decision by saying that it was without support. This is where she is being completely disingenuous, because the proposal for two unitary authorities is supported by me and my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christine Russell) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). To be fair to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), he also supports it, rather than having a single unitary for the whole county. Moreover, the proposal is supported by four out of the six districts, so it does have support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich went on to say that she was against the proposal because it would prevent three health centres, a new school and a railway station from being built in her constituency. That is absolute nonsense. The primary care trust will deliver health services in Cheshire, the Government themselves, through building schools for the future, will deliver the new school, and I suspect that Railtrack will be responsible for the rehabilitation of the railway.

My hon. Friend said that the proposal would adversely affect national health services in Cheshire. Strangely enough, Cheshire already has two primary care trusts that will fit very comfortably with having two unitary authorities in the area. She then said that the proposal would adversely affect education. As we all know, the delivery of education in the area is devolved down to schools. Cheshire’s excellent schools will continue to deliver their excellent services when we have two unitary authorities; I can see no particular problem with that.

My hon. Friend finished by saying that there was cynicism at the heart of the decision to create two unitary authorities in Cheshire. I ask the House to
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consider this for cynicism. Two weeks ago, we should have had the announcement that we were to get two unitary local authorities in Cheshire. It was delayed. My hon. Friend went to see the Chief Whip and said, “If you go ahead with the announcement, I will resign from the parliamentary Labour party, I will campaign against this decision and I will vote against the parliamentary Labour party on Europe.” And we are accused of being cynical. I hope that that puts the record straight, and that this proposal goes ahead with the support of my hon. Friends and of the people in the two areas, which will be better served by having unitary local government than by the current two-tier system.

Having got that off my chest, in the time left I will deal with the two local planning issues that I had originally wanted to start by raising. Both have national implications regarding ways in which I would like to see the law strengthened. In Weaverham, which is a very nice village in my constituency, there is company called Anaconda Investments Ltd. It purchased a plot of land with four existing dwellings, and put a proposal to the local authority to demolish those dwellings and replace them with six houses and flats at three-storey level. Vale Royal borough council, the planning authority, refused that planning application on three separate occasions. It was eventually granted on appeal.

If Anaconda had stuck to the permission that it was given on appeal, I would not be raising this issue now. However, it decided to overdevelop the site, and everybody who has looked at it agrees that it is completely overdeveloped. Anaconda was then told to put in fresh submission—a fresh, retrospective planning application—which it did. The local authority refused that retrospective application. It went to appeal, and the local authority’s position on one of the blocks in this development was upheld. That block remains in place. The area is oppressive, and the block in question seriously affects the residential and visual amenity of my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Carter, of 6 Greenwood close. The development is completely out of character with the area in which it is located. The council served an enforcement notice on the company, and that notice is going to appeal some time in the new year.

The problems arising from that development dovetail nicely with those of another development in the green belt in my constituency. A group of Travellers purchased a greenfield site in my constituency, occupied it without planning permission and turned it into a Traveller’s site. The local authority, Vale Royal borough council, acted very quickly in trying to get the Travellers removed. The case went to court, and the judge refused to grant the removal and allowed the Travellers to stay. They have, I think, permission to stay until next July, which will mean that they will have been on the site for well over 18 months.

The field in question is, as I say, a greenfield site in the green belt. It was designated green belt in the first review of the Vale Royal local plan, yet a group of Travellers is riding roughshod through the planning procedures. I want the Department for Communities and Local Government to strengthen planning law to give local authorities more enforcement powers to deal with particular planning applications that are granted on appeal, so that they can make sure that they comply with the parameters established on appeal. Where the green belt is breached, local authorities should be able
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to take effective action to stop that happening. That is an important thing that we could do. It would give local authorities far more power to intervene and would give the courts less power to frustrate our planning laws.

The next important issue that I would like to raise with the Minister relates to the Criminal Records Bureau. A constituent—I shall call him Mr. Smith to protect his identity—applied for a job as a gardener with a company called Peverel Management. The application form asked whether he had any criminal convictions, and he ticked the box marked “No”. Peverel did a check on my constituent with the CRB, found that he had two minor convictions and sacked him on the spot. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 makes it clear that those two convictions were spent convictions, that my constituent did not have to declare them on his form and that they should not have barred him from employment or brought him the sack.

My constituent could not go to an industrial tribunal because he had not been working for the company for longer than six months. He has not been reinstated, and there is no provision in the 1974 Act to take action against people who breach it by refusing to take account of the fact that a conviction has been spent. The situation is even worse, because the Police Act 1997 says that it is wrong for people to seek information from the CRB in such circumstances—a provision that was also broken. The only thing that the CRB can do is deregister the company that applied illegally for the information. My constituent found himself out of work and the company found themselves completely at odds with the law, but no sanction was taken against it. That is serious, and I urge the Minister to take up the issue with her ministerial colleagues.

I shall finish on a tragic note. On 24 October, two of my constituents, both young boys, Guy Davies and Kieran Coupe, were killed on the M56 in the Murdishaw part of my constituency. Information will doubtless emerge at the inquiry as to why two young boys, who were aged six and a half and seven, were on the motorway at the time of night that they were, but this was a tragic event for their families and for the people driving the cars involved in the collisions. I immediately met the chief constable, the chief executive of Halton borough council and senior management from the Highways Agency. They were all of the opinion that we ought not to have a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy, and that we should examine the situation to see whether there was anything that we could possibly do.

Two things that I would like done occurred to me. Fencing on motorways is designed to keep farm animals off the carriageway, not to prevent anyone from gaining access to motorways. I would like the Highways Agency to re-examine the safety precaution measures to see whether we can make it more difficult for pedestrians to get on to motorways, particularly where they run through areas of high population density. We must also ensure that the green cross code and road safety issues are taught at even the youngest levels in our schools, and outline the serious dangers involved in very young people finding themselves on main roads and motorways where they ought not to be, as happened in this case. I again offer the families my sincere condolences.

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In the 90 seconds left available to me, I want to raise one other issue: police pay. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) made a powerful case for the police pay review to be implemented in full from 1 September. He made the pertinent point that each police authority has already budgeted to pay the 2.5 per cent. increase and that we are doing something unnecessary. We have lost a great deal of police good will. They do not have the right to strike, nor do they have access to the other forms of industrial action that other public sector workers can take. They need to be able to have confidence in a pay review body that will deliver them a fair wage for the very serious job that they do. Even at this stage, I urge the Minister to re-examine this issue so that we can ensure that the UK’s police officers have a fair wage for doing an extremely dangerous job and for putting their lives on the line. We must give them the confidence that the outcomes of their future pay negotiations will be met in full. If we can do that, we will be able to rest assured that we have got far greater numbers of police than ever before, that they have greater powers to do the work that they carry out on our behalf and that they are properly remunerated for the work that they do. That would be an excellent Christmas present for Her Majesty’s police.

3.40 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I was most interested in what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) had to say. I shall not follow him in discussing the reorganisation of local government in Cheshire, but there certainly appears to be scope for some interesting argument between him and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). We on the Opposition Benches look forward to seeing a lot of that.

In this Christmas Adjournment debate, I wish to raise briefly five points that have huge resonance in my constituency and around the country. It is important that these points get an airing. Indeed, I shall follow straight on from the hon. Member for Weaver Vale and from my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), on the question of police pay. I do not know how the Government got into this situation. We have the independent Police Arbitration Tribunal, but the Government, for reasons best known to themselves, have ignored it. The police have been treated very shabbily. I have received, as I am sure most hon. Members have, a huge correspondence, mostly e-mail, from constituents in the police who are extremely upset. I have many issues with policing in this country, including too much time being spent writing up paperwork, and too little being spent on the beat or arresting criminals on the streets. However, the police are hard-working public servants who we expect to put their lives on the line occasionally in our defence. They have received an independent pay award, and the Government should honour it. The Government are behaving very shabbily over this issue.

The independent Police Arbitration Tribunal was set up in 1979 and during 18 years of Conservative Government—not all of them, I admit, were times of loose public spending—the award was honoured. This Government have reneged on the deal, and I am astonished by that. They are unnecessarily provoking huge ill
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will from public servants for the sake of savings of £30 million. That is not a paltry sum, but it could be considered so in comparison with what they have pumped into Northern Rock. Our police officers deserve better.

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend says that he is astonished that the Government have reneged on the police pay deal. However, at the time of the last general election, we were told that we would have a referendum on the European constitution. The Government have reneged on that, too. Does he detect a theme emerging?

Mr. Robathan: As it happens, I shall come to that issue, but I do indeed see a theme emerging.

My constituents are concerned about police pay, like everybody else. That is not to say that policing could not be improved or reformed, but I am astonished by the Government’s behaviour. The Home Secretary should change her mind even now, because doing so would be for the benefit of the police force and the country.

The second issue is that of post offices, which has been mentioned by, among others, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who is sadly no longer in his place to keep me in my place. The Government have got the whole issue wrong. I used to shadow the post office portfolio. Every post office, apart from a Crown post office, is a small business, run by a small business person. Instead of treating that network as a business opportunity that could be used in many different ways, the Government have consistently—they have done so from the urban reinvention programme onwards—treated it as a problem. Frankly, they would like to get rid of it completely.

I am fortunate in that only one post office my constituency will be closed under the latest programme. It is at Arnesby, and I know it well, as I used to live there. The village is not especially big. It has a pub, a church and a school, but it does not have a shop or great community facilities. The post office is therefore much valued. My colleagues on the Front Bench share my view that the rural post office provides a service that should be married with the business opportunity that it represents. That is not to say that none should ever be closed, but the number of rural post offices around my constituency that have closed in the past 10 years is staggering. That has been to the detriment of my constituents’ lives, and I know that the same thing has happened all over the country. The Government and the Post Office need to look again at what they are doing.

Thirdly, I want to raise the question of pensions, and especially of those private pension schemes that have gone bust. People who know Leicestershire will know that many former workers at British United Shoe Machinery were affected by the problem, so I was delighted by the Government’s announcement yesterday that they intend to reimburse the pensioners involved. I applaud the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for finally making that decision, and although I have been here long enough to know that the Government are not absolutely accurate about everything that they put in the public domain, I hope that pensioners will receive 90 per cent. of the pension that they lost.

I have two questions about the Government’s actions in this matter. First, how was it that they were prepared to go to court to fight the pensioners’ action groups,
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given that they have just about met the pensioners’ demands? Secondly, how much will the deal cost? When we started arguing about this matter in the previous Parliament, we were told categorically that the burden would be huge. The Government said that reimbursing the pensioners could come to as much £15 billion, and that that was unacceptable. We did not agree, so I was puzzled yesterday to hear that the total cost would be between £2.7 billion and £2.9 billion. Both are large sums, but I understand that the Exchequer has already received £1.7 billion, as it had a claim on the pension funds when they collapsed. Therefore, the cost to the public purse is not £15 billion, but £1 billion. That is still an enormous amount, but the Government accept what most hon. Members have said for some time—that they have a moral responsibility to assist people who saved for retirement and lost their pensions through no fault of their own.

The fourth issue that I wish to raise—farming—also has local as well as national resonance. I should declare an interest, in that I have a farm, although I should also declare that I do not make any money out of it. The state of farming remains dire. There have been some improvements, such as in the price of wheat, but we all know that that will cause the cost of food to rise dramatically. Tesco has made some movement in respect of the farm-gate milk price, but the dairy sector remains in crisis.

My constituency used to have a great many dairy farmers, but a huge number of farms have gone out of business. They have either given up farming completely, or they have left the dairy sector because they cannot make a living out of it. They are just about breaking even now, but at one stage they were producing milk at a loss—and one does not need to be a very clever business man to realise that that cannot go on for very long. We need to look at the whole question of how farming is supported. The fiasco of the single farm payment goes on and on, and the Government should be ashamed of it. Other important questions have to do with how foot and mouth disease escaped from the Pirbright facility, and whether that resulted from the cuts made by the previous Chancellor of Exchequer in the funding for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and especially for the animal hygiene service, I think, which was in overall control of the Pirbright site.

I want especially to raise the issue of nitrate-vulnerable zones. A huge amount of money will have to be spent on installing slurry pits or bunds on every farm in the country. At best, their efficacy is dubious, but at worst they could have an unfortunate environmental impact on land that we want to improve. The House will know that the current system of single farm payments requires that land is kept in good agricultural and environmental condition—GAEC, for short. Farmers are encouraged to leave vegetation uncut, and especially to leave stubble over winter, as that is good for birds. However, the proposals for nitrate-vulnerable zones insist that stubble is ploughed over the winter so that slurry can be spread on the land. That is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, so the Government should look closely at the proposals and consider whether there might be better ways to reduce nitrates in ground and drinking water to improve the environment. The current proposals look like a disaster waiting to happen, and I counsel Labour Members that there will be disaster in every constituency that has farms unless there is change.

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