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Despite numerous attempts on my part to get the CSA to clarify exactly what amount my constituent owes to this organisation, I have met over the last year and a half a series of delays, poor answers, and late acknowledgements to my letters or no acknowledgment at all.
Many hon. Members constituencies face the closure of their Remploy factory, as we do in Southend. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), has been doing her best to reassure us, but my constituents are not reassured, so I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass that on.
A lovely lady who works at Basildon hospital came to see me at my last surgery. Although she wanted me to mention her name, I will not. She was breathalysed in 2003, when she was an alcoholic. She lost her licence, and it was reissued in 2006. After she had held her licence for a year, she had to apply for another one. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency required her to be tested, and the test found that she was just over the technical level. Her consultant and others have given her a number of independent blood tests showing that she is absolutely clearshe has not touched alcohol since. Will the Deputy Leader of the House pass this on to the quango, and can we please get this wonderful nurse back into work at Basildon hospital?
I end on some positive notes. In previous such debates, I have talked about the lack of buses in Southend, West. I am delighted to say that two weeks ago, I was present at the unveiling of a new fleet of low-loader buses with disabled and easy access. People in Southend are jumping up in the air about those buses. Routes that were cut as a result of underfunding have been restored, so I am delighted to congratulate Arriva on that development.
I congratulate the Government on the medals that they are giving to those who served in the Womens Land Army. Those women include my mother, who is in her 96th year. Although we need these medals fairly quickly, we are absolutely delighted about what the Government have done. I end by wishing everyone a very happy and joyful Christmas.
I will touch on several issues affecting my constituents, the first of which is the recent announcement on the future of post offices. The Post Office put forward for closure three post offices in my Cleethorpes constituency, which were located in Barton-upon-Humber, Ashby cum Fenby and Habrough. Following the consultation exercise, it has said that all three branches will close.
The response that was sent to Members of Parliament following the consultation was incredibly poor. Despite the objections, the reasons given for proceeding with each of the three closures were very scant. The proposed closure of Habrough post office generated the greatest opposition, yet the response was simply along the lines of, We have received objections and considered the issues regarding travel, and we dont see any particular problem. There is a problem, however, and the Habrough decision was based on wrong information, because people simply cannot get a return bus journey to the nearest post office, which is in the town of Immingham. The objectors had pointed that outI even phoned this week to point it out. What really worried me was being told that even if the Post Office had based its decision on wrong information, that would not prevent the closure. There was meant to be a consultation. If it is a proper consultation, there should be mechanisms for raising such points.
When the closures in north Lincolnshire were announced, one post office in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey)a neighbouring MPwhich was not even included in the original proposals was suddenly put forward for closure. On investigation, we were informed that because certain other post offices had been saved, it was decided that a few more post offices would be lobbed into the mix to be considered for closure, to make up the numbers. If there is to be consultation, it has to be proper consultation. When I heard that explanation of what is happening in a neighbouring constituency, it made me doubt whether objections were considered carefully and properly across the board.
I shall now move on to the subject of fire stations. To add insult to injury, at the end of last week Humberside fire authority announced various changes to the service that it provides. Two of the proposals affect Cleethorpes constituency. The first proposal is that the retained fire station at Waltham be closed and taken out of service in 2008-09, and the second is that services at the Immingham West fire station be reduced by one engine in 2009-10. Obviously I am sad about the announcement, and not just because I recall opening that fire station not that many years ago. Cleethorpes is lovely; it is a wonderful east coast resort, but the constituency is far more than the coastal town. The Humber bank is one of the biggest industrial areas in the country. Residents of Immingham have around them two oil refineries, power stations and docks, not to mention the numerous factories on the banks of the river. All those are dangerous high-risk sites. That is why Immingham has specialised fire stations at either end of the town.
Accidents happen. There was an explosion at one of the refineries a few years ago. Anybody who can think back further will remember, in the same area, the
Flixborough disaster. People are very conscious of such things. They remember those events. The fire stations engine was called out only four times in a year, but that is not the point. The point is that one of those occasions could be a major incident. People will remember what happened at Buncefield; around Immingham there are similar oil storage facilities. It would be wrong to reduce the number of engines at the Immingham West station.
I have a proposal to put to the fire authority in the consultation. It is not ideal, but I am throwing it into the mix. If the authority insists on going ahead with the removal of an engine, thus causing a loss of jobs at the Immingham West station, rather than having a specialised unit, could we possibly have a retained crew at that fire station? That would at least give the town some cover, and it would offer some peace of mind to residents of the area. The fire and rescue service in my constituency has done a marvellous job in recent months. Like many others in that part of the country, it was affected by the flooding in the summer. Everybody saw the pictures of Hull, across the river. There was severe flooding in my constituency, too, but it did not appear much on the national news. However, even now residents are living in caravans. They face Christmas in a caravan because repairs and refurbishments are still under way.
One of the towns affected was Immingham. The fire and rescue service did a marvellous job, not only with Immingham residents but with Goxhill, Barrow upon Humber and around the area. People are sensitive. When they suffered from the floods, the fire service helped out. They are surrounded by industryincluding high-risk industryyet they are going to lose a fire engine.
Waltham fire station is being suggested for total closure, too. It is a retained station that serves a population of some 20,000the whole southern part of my constituency, which is very rural. It had 200 calls in the past year, and costs about £60,000 to run. I would say that it is a cost-effective station. I would like the fire authority to reconsider.
Another subject that I shall touch on briefly is police pay. Like all other Members of Parliament, I have received a great many e-mails from serving officers in my constituency. I understand why the Government have decided to stage the increase: we do not want inflationary pay rises. That is the reason being given. We can look back to the boom and bust economies of the past to see the impact that that can have, and how pay rises can be wiped out. I understand where the Government are coming from. However, in my heart, part of me says that if a deal has been struck through arbitration we should do our best to meet that deal. The Government have said that they will stage the increase, and I do not think there will be much movement on that. However, in order to restore the faith of serving police officers I want my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to take back the message that even if we are not going to do something about the pay as it is, can we not do anything else? What other good-will gesture can we make to say thank you for the marvellous job that police officers do?
Like other Members, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to wish you and everybody else a most wonderful Christmas and a very peaceful new yearand I hope that everybody will have a couple of days off from relentless casework.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I begin by endorsing the Christmas message of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who deplored the dumbing down of Christmas by those who claim offence on behalf of others when none has been intended or taken. I have never had a complaint from a Sikh, a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or anybody else from one of the great world religions about the celebration of Christian festivals. If the politically correct mafia would focus on the values that we have in commonsuch as the family, the work ethic and looking after people who are less fortunate than ourselvesperhaps they would have a happy Christmas, too.
I want to talk about the finances of the London borough of Havering and the local government financial settlement. Historically, Havering had a low base budget because it was an economical authority, so year on year the increases on that low base budget have been modest.
This year, the London borough of Havering won a national award for the best council in the country for financial services. That was largely because of the council cabinet member for finance, Councillor Roger Ramsey, and the director of finance, Rita Greenwood. They have worked tirelessly over the past four years to put the finances, which were in a parlous state when they took over, on to a sound footing, to keep council tax increases to a minimum and to improve services to the tax-paying public.
One might think that, having achieved all that last year and having introduced the lowest council tax increase for 10 years, there might have been some financial benefit or reward from the Governmentbut the reward was to be floored again this year.
Havering council has been floored at 2 per cent., which is about an extra £1 million in monetary terms. That £1 million has to cope with inflation and a whole range of other pressures, including the extra £4 million needed for adult social services. The borough has one of the highest proportions of elderly people of all the London boroughs. All the associated costs that go with that put pressure on the councils budget. We have many classically asset-rich and cash-poor people who moved out from the east end of London several decades ago, having never earned a great deal of money. They are now living on a modest retirement income, and their care costs are escalating. The east London waste authority, which is the waste disposal authority for our group of London boroughs, is going to increase its precept by £1 million this year, so the increase in council grant could all be soaked up purely by paying for waste disposal. There has also been a staff pay upgrade of nearly 2.5 per cent.
All this illustrates the impossible situation in which the London borough of Havering finds itself. London overall has done very badly, and this is the worst settlement nationally for years, yet all the boroughs that adjoin Havering have not been floored. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) is no longer in his seat to hear the fact that for the neighbouring borough of Barking and Dagenham, the figure is 5.9 per cent. For Redbridge the figure is 5.2 per cent., for Newham it is 5.1 per cent., and for Enfield it is 4.8 per cent. According to the Government, the relative needs per head for Havering and its immediate neighbours are
expressed as follows: for Havering £195, for Redbridge £306, and for Barking and Dagenham, £482, which means that a person living there will have nearly two and a half times as much spent on them as someone in Havering. Finallythis is the beautythere is a whopping £708 for everyone living in Newham. That is more than three and a half times the amount that a person in Havering will receive. Even the London average of £449 is more than double the amount allocated to Havering.
How can this be? Why has Havering been singled out for such dreadful treatment? Who in the Government has such a dreadful grudge against Havering? The council is determined to achieve a reasonably low council tax increase again, but that means that services will have much less money spent on them than they need. For example, there is a £70 million backlog of road and footpath repairs. I receive letters all the time from constituents complaining about the footpath outside their house or the potholes in their road. I write back and tell them that the London borough of Havering has a rolling programme of footpath and carriageway repairs. That programme is not going to roll very far this year on the current allocation.
I received a letter this week from Joe Bell, the United Kingdom Youth Parliament cabinet member for London. His letter illustrates just one example of the forced and unwelcome budgetary decisions that the London borough of Havering will have to make. Haverings central youth council has been very active, and every year it holds elections for the Youth Parliament. One of the schools of which I happen to be a governor, Gaynes school, has had pupils elected to the Parliament two years running. This year the central youth council has been told that, because of overspending on social services to meet certain Government targets, funding cuts in the youth service will have to be made. That means that there is simply not enough money to fund the Youth Parliament elections this year. The youth council was told that it could go ahead only if it funded the elections itself at a cost of £3,000, which is almost its whole budget.
The youth council stands for youth democracy, and its members said that until that night, they thought that they had the support of the borough, but that apparently, that was not the case. Of course they are wrong to think that, but the decision is very unwelcome. I cannot believe that a single councillor in Havering would have welcomed the decision. In the youth councils eyes, though, it is the council that has cut its funding. The youth council wishes to register its disgust at such a disgraceful state of affairs, and I want to register my disgust as wellnot with the council, but at this dreadful grant that the London borough of Havering gets every year in comparison with its neighbours and the rest of London. The youth council intends to write to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families about this, and I will be very interested hear what response it receives.
Let me quote from the list of the councils priorities and objectives. One is promoting financial efficiency and providing value for money. Clearly, it is making a very good job of that, but in improving services, one of its objectives is to be positive about young people, but it will not be able to fulfil that. Another is investing in roads and pavements, and still another is developing a range of services for young people, particularly hard-to-reach young people. This settlement is clearly
going to make it very difficult for the council to achieve the objectives that, because of their importance to local people, it has set itself.
During the autumn, the Government published the outcome of their comprehensive spending review for the next three years. Among the highlights for local government was a value-for-money programme in which councils will be expected to make cash savings of 3 per cent. each yearand so the screw turns. The savings are expected to deliver improved, modern and personalised public services for families in need, children in care and old and vulnerable people, as well as increasing recycling of waste to 40 per cent. by 2010.
The actual level of grant increase will depend on whether the existing system of ceilings, floors and damping will remain in place. Given the express intention of the London borough of Havering to limit council tax increases, it will be essential to maintain the financial prudence that, despite the absence of any financial reward from the Government, has been so ably demonstrated. There is a limit to how many more financial miracles the London borough of Havering can produce, so will the Deputy Leader of the House please pass on the message to give our borough a fair deal?
In my remaining time, I would like to ask the Deputy Leader of the House to pass on another message to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The matter seems so trivial at first sight that Members may wonder why I am bringing it to the Houses attention, but it has proved impossible to resolve. My constituency contains the Sacred Heart of Mary girls school, of which I happen to be a governor. Next door is the Sacred Heart of Mary convent school. These are separate and different schools, but they share the same postcode.
I have asked the Post Office to give each school a separate postcode, because they continually receive one anothers post. During term time, it does not matter too much because it is easy to exchange, but during the school holidays, post for the convent school, however urgent, goes through the letterbox and lies there for a considerable time. All my appeals to the Post Office have fallen on deaf ears. From Adam Crozier down, the responses I receive say, No, you cant have one, but no one can explain why, or back up the decision with any logical reason. Will the Minister please pass on this message to the Secretary of State? All the school wants is its own postcode; all the other schools in the borough have one, so please can this school have one as well?
Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): My time is constrained, so in case I run out, I start by wishing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the other Deputy Speakers, Mr. Speaker, his staff and indeed all the staff of the House, who go to great lengths to make our lives easier and our business run smoothly, a happy Christmas and good fortunes in the new year.
I should like to raise four issues, if only briefly: the south-east plan, post offices, my local hospital and, following on from that, the funding formulae that local councils in my area are receiving from the Government.
Before I do so, however, I should like to commend the idea proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who is no longer in his place, of giving medals to those in the Womens Land Army. To follow on from the points that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) made, my mother was a welfare officer in the land army. She was involved in a demonstration that the girls from the land army held down the Mall at the end of the war, when they stripped down to their bras and pants in protest at not receiving demob suits. That generation of women did a great deal to further the cause of the women who sit in the House. We should pay them a significant tribute for their guts and their determination to stand up and fight for what they wanted.
On the current south-east plan, however, my constituency is geographically constrained, being on a floodplain and surrounded by green belt, with protected downland to the south-east and south-west, and rural villages stretching down to the Sussex border. Guildford borough council has met its housing targets, but the town, with its narrow and constricted roads, is increasingly congested, with the study of the likely transport impact of housing numbers set out in the draft south-east plan predicting unacceptable traffic congestion. We are also conscious of other infrastructure deficiencies in water and sewerage, as well as increasing problems with flooding.
The inspectors panel report on the south-east plan, which is now being considered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, increased the housing numbers for Guildford by one third, or nearly 2,000 additional houses. It also diminished the requirement for infrastructure to accompany new development, changing the need in the draft plan for development to be contingent on the provision of infrastructure to the timely provision of infrastructure, which provides more scope for inadequate, inferior development without the necessary facilities and amenities.
It seems that Guildford was singled out for a disproportionate increase in housing because, interestingly, it is described as a regional hub, a term that had metamorphosed from the description regional transport hub, which many residents in my constituency found somewhat surprising. Yes, Guildford has a railway station and a bus service of sorts, but it is a long way from having the comprehensive public transport system that the term might suggest.
If Guildford is to meet the new housing targets as well as intensifying development in the urban area, it will almost certainly have to expand into the green belt to the north of the town. The effects of incremental development are already being felt in north Guildford, particularly in areas such as Stoughton, which suffers significantly from the lack of infrastructure. The threats to Waverley, in the south of my constituency, are similar. The tensions between house building, inadequate infrastructure and the use of green belts continue.
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