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2.24 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Time is very much against us, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on getting in as many pertinent points as he could in the limited time. I shall do my best to end soon enough to allow the Minister to make at least a couple of comments if Labour Members will allow. I should like to clarify some of the points that have been raised. The Conservative party would like the Bill to progress to Committee; it has merits, mentioned today, that deserve further scrutiny.

I should like to start with tourism, as I am the shadow tourism Minister. I am grateful for the feedback that I have received from all sorts of quarters, showing that the Bill would extend our tourist season. It would boost inbound tourism by more than £1 billion and overall spending in the UK leisure sector by more than £2 billion. The tourism industry needs a boost, and the Bill would certainly be welcome.

Mr. MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Ellwood: I shall not give way; time is against me—I apologise.

Road safety is one of the main reasons why 70 countries around the world have changed their time slots; they have done so to prevent accidents on the road.

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

Mr. Ellwood: I will not.

Some 82 per cent. of accidents involving schoolchildren happen in the evenings, and only 18 per cent. in the mornings. That fact alone shows what benefit would come from the time shift.

The last experiment on this issue took place in 1969-70. Page 10 of the Library’s useful guide on this shows that deaths and serious injuries in Scotland during 1970 went down by 107, and total casualties were reduced by 390. That was in Scotland alone; further down the UK, the numbers would increase.

Mr. MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ellwood: I will not, I am afraid; time is against us.

It has been mentioned that there would be knock-on savings of £200 million a year for the NHS, not to mention the lives that would be saved.

Carbon emissions are very relevant these days, and that is why we need to consider the issue of daylight saving differently from how we did four years ago. The National Grid Company has commented that the peak in electricity demand would be lower, enabling the country to operate at a lower capacity at all times throughout the year. Furthermore, school activities would increase, more after-school functions could take place and kids could be helped away from the television.

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Crime would also reduce. Obviously, criminals enjoy darkness more than light. There would also be economic advantages: the City and the London assembly are both in favour. However, I stress that there are disadvantages—

Mr. MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Ellwood: I will not give way, sir.

The disadvantages must be given more scrutiny. We have not heard from many of the relevant voices, although we have heard from the farming industry—

Mr. MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kate Hoey rose—

Mr. Ellwood: I am not going to give way or be bullied, because there are only three minutes left. I should like us to have more time. I see from the barracking that people want to put their points, but there is simply not the time.

Let us allow the Bill to move on to its next phase, give ourselves the opportunity to understand what is happening to our country and take advantage of the impact on tourism, energy, carbon emissions and the saving of lives across and up and down the nation. I encourage the House to move the Bill to its Committee stage.

2.28 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill; I had not expected that. In the very short time remaining, I should say that a number of Members from all parts of the United Kingdom want to make a contribution about the Bill, although they would not necessarily serve on the Committee if it were to progress to that stage. It is therefore important that the Bill does not go to Committee.

I oppose the Bill. I am trying to remember when we last tried the experiment. I know that I was a lot younger then, but I cannot remember exactly when it was. In those days, exactly the same words were said by those who wanted the experiment. They said that it would really make a difference to people’s quality of life and enjoyment. The reality was, as the promoter of the Bill knows, that it was not a marvellous change to people’s lives and it did not bring about a huge change in people’s quality of life. Indeed, a number of young children died in accidents during the morning, when people are not so awake or alert and are in more of a rush to get to work or school. Actually, the number of accidents rose.

I have yet to see any statistics that prove to me that people—

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

Debate to be resumed on Friday 14 March.

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Remaining Private Members’ Bills

copyright in sound recordings and performers’ rights (term extension) bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 14 March.

7 Mar 2008 : Column 2101

Walsall Council

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Tony Cunningham.]

2.31 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): This is the second time that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and I have raised the issue of those who formerly worked for Walsall who were badly treated. It was raised previously in an Adjournment debate on 26 April 2007.

If anything came of our concerns, we remain oblivious of it. I very much welcome this unexpected opportunity to speak again. There is a new Minister, and a further opportunity to express my deep concern—to put it incredibly mildly—about the lack of action by those who are responsible for ensuring the probity, efficiency, transparency and legality of municipal government in Walsall and elsewhere. I would include in that long list the Audit Commission; perhaps the district auditor, who has worked hard; the police; the Government office for the west midlands; Walsall council’s internal audit committee, and—we should not forget—central Government. Many investigations and much activity have taken place, but how much positive action? Have all those organisations that are so entrusted, individually or collectively, achieved the objectives laid down in law and practice? I regret to say that, in my humble judgment, they have fallen short—far short—of the tasks that they have been set.

As I said almost a year ago, I believe that those in the local authority have been guilty of many things, and have been surrounded by a ring of steel, perhaps on the basis of personal relationships, misplaced loyalty or vested interest—a need to protect the credibility of alleged improvements in the council. I must admit that, since special measures, there have been improvements, in some cases considerable ones, but at an unacceptable cost to the reputation of local government and the lives of those discredited, dumped and in some cases not even compensated. Is that to be set against the achievement of three stars?

I raise the issue again and will continue to do so until justice is done and those who have besmirched municipal government are held properly to account and, if necessary, punished. So far, their actions appear to have been rewarded—in one particular case, handsomely so. I will not bore the Minister or the House by re-hashing events of the last four years, that period when Walsall was deservedly put into special measures by the Government, and put under the tutelage of—once again, diplomatically expressed—a highly centralised, idiosyncratic and deeply flawed leadership. However, I am more than prepared to give the Minister, and those whom he may designate, chapter and verse on what befell loyal employees of the local authority, and I am sure that others will do the same.

There are three basic issues: first, the governance, good and bad, of Walsall council in recent years; secondly, how the many allegations were investigated or not investigated; and thirdly, the monstrous treatment of four, possibly five, loyal public servants who, in my view, have been treated shamefully.

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Most people in Walsall have heard of the tribulations that befell Peter Francis and the former chief superintendent of police, Dave Parish. Less well known was the appalling treatment of Liz McDonald, who was very sick. I knew there was at least one other who had experienced the heavy hand of the former leadership of the local authority and their loyal accomplices. His name, I later found out, was Mark Kemp. The reason he had disappeared from the radar screen was the sheer terror that he had experienced from unknown perpetrators, exacerbated by the usual suspects in the council to whom I have referred. If anything, his treatment was far worse than that of the others.

I thought that this small group of abused employees comprised the “Walsall four”, but another name has very recently been added to the list—that of Carl Teesdale, who has just lodged an application to the employment tribunal. I am sure that there are still others out there who have been on the receiving end of the long and totally unacceptable treatment meted out to those who dared to raise their voices, ostensibly under the protection of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998—AKA the Whistleblowing Act.

A common thread runs through all four—possibly five—cases. These were all loyal, long-serving, hard-working, honest public officials, including Mr. Teesdale. All but Liz McDonald identified varying deficiencies and activities relating to flawed corporate governance, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, malfeasance in public office, illegal payments, falsification of accounts and criminal deception—and that is for starters. For their courage and persistence, what did they get from their employers? Was it their sincere thanks? No, it was not. Was it a bonus or recommendation for a gong? No, it was not. Was it promotion? No, it was not. What they got was the following. They were ostracised, bullied, intimidated, marginalised, demoralised and pursued with relentless pressure, and virtually all of them succumbed and became ill. They were then unceremonially booted out.

The common element to support the employment tribunal case was the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, of which the local authority was apparently oblivious although it is 10 years old. Fortunately, the former employees had the courage, resilience and persistence to fight back. For a long time they acted independently, as they were oblivious of what was happening to the others. They obtained good legal advice, belatedly in the case of Liz McDonald, who had been fired by fax. As I said in the last Adjournment debate, she found legal advice having discovered, late in the day, that her home insurance policy funded certain legal actions.

Liz McDonald, Dave Parish and Peter Francis fortunately proceeded with their application to an employment tribunal. The council sought that well-known device procrastination, trying to weaken their resolve financially and emotionally. When it had nowhere further to run, the council, acting on strong legal advice, capitulated, on the day of the hearing or in some cases the day before. The cost to the council tax payer of the Peter Francis case was well over £1 million, excluding the cost of legal advice. In all the cases the enormous costs to the Walsall taxpayer could have been saved, and the lives of loyal public servants might not have been blighted or possibly damaged
7 Mar 2008 : Column 2103
permanently. Why did that happen? It was because proper legal advice was either not given or taken, or totally ignored.

I refer the House to a report by the district auditor, John Gregory. Although diplomatically presented, it was a damning indictment of the actions of the former chief executive. It was obvious that she would lose, as her lawyers had told her. Mr. Gregory identified many failures. The former chief executive clearly did not take the advice that she was given. She made decisions on the Francis case without the requisite legal knowledge of, in particular, disability discrimination. She dominated and thwarted the council's preparation of its weak case, which became weaker. In the words of Mr. Gregory,

I will not list all the criticisms. I must not lose sight of the issues raised by Peter Francis, Dave Parish, Liz McDonald and Mark Kemp which led to their Kafkaesque treatment. It was fraud and theft pure and simple in some cases, together with a large dollop of gross inefficiency, malevolence and maladministration.

I believe that in the early days of the neighbourhood renewal fund, which was meant to alleviate deprivation, the instructions or advice from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister were vague. That was eagerly leapt upon by a grossly inefficient Walsall bureaucracy, which was analysed and exposed by the district auditor. However, old habits die hard. I am convinced by the evidence that is available that much of the money that should have targeted deprivation was spent—with the flimsiest excuses—on closed-circuit television, wheelie bins, wardens, education facilities from Serco, and other beneficiaries as yet undisclosed. This large sum of money represented a nice little earner for some and a pot of gold to be raided by high officials to fill any gaps in mainstream funding—or even worse. NRF money had also been used to support policing of the night-time economy, which seems rather bizarre.

On the malfeasance and crime, I wish to mention an e-mail of 2004; I know the author, but I shall not name him. He said in response to the identification of an £800,000 underspend on the NRF:

In an e-mail of 10 June 2004 regarding the unauthorised transfer of £100,000 to social services he says:

He may have found that pretty funny, but I find it corrupt.

The council’s self-defence has been miserable; it has lost time and again. It has deceived. It has had spurious inquiries—I could name them all—that came to nothing.

The Mark Kemp case was in many respects the worst of all. He has had no legal representation, although he has received pro bono advice from someone—a
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heroine, in my view—who was familiar with the other cases. He came to Walsall in 2003 to work for the establishment team of the education department. It was not long before he was introduced to what appears to have been a long-standing, unofficial working practice of bungs between contractors and some employees of the council. He declined to participate, was ostracised, was assaulted five times—once in the council house—and was sent a dead, decaying rat through the post. Someone called at his house and threatened his 75-year-old mother’s life. He was savagely beaten in his garden by two assailants. He was dumped in a pond in the back of his garden and could have drowned. He was then fired on spurious grounds. He did not surface because he was told, “Go to a tribunal and you’re a dead man.”

I am not blaming the council leadership, but corruption took place in the local authority at that time and went either unnoticed or unidentified. The council is in denial despite the regular beatings it has received. I have been told that what has happened is historical, but some of it happened two years ago, so that is nonsense.

The epicentre of all of this was a coterie of senior staff directed by the former chief executive. Many people around the country know exactly where the bodies are buried. Many went along with the tide, feeling the consequences of working within an organisation dominated in part, when threatened, by a culture of fear and intimidation. I hope that the silent ones will have had their consciences pricked by the revelations of what happened and will come forward. Perhaps omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs, but what happened is a disgrace and should be properly investigated.

The police have made inquiries, but nothing, apparently, has come of them. There have been internal inquiries, and people have been hired to carry out an inquiry. I hope that the Minister does not accept that any of them got anywhere near the truth. I think that a lot of people should be investigated, and I hope that they will be.

I am sure that advisers will say that despite our long experience as MPs we Walsall Members are being paranoid, but the complaints of those who have been appallingly treated and the allegations of serious corruption should be investigated properly, not by friends of anyone, or by an institution that has a vested interest in maintaining that great success has been achieved in the past four or five years—which is a fiction in some cases—since the Government sent in the dogs. It should be seriously investigated, perhaps through more than one inquiry, by an independent person or persons reporting to the Minister. Only then will the allegations of appalling treatment meted out to decent people be dealt with, and only then will we receive the just expression of what should be said: that the council proceeded badly and those responsible should be identified and, if necessary, punished.

2.45 pm

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