Previous Section Index Home Page

From 29 September 2008, learner motorcyclists from my constituency and from many other parts of the country will face a round trip of more than 200 miles to take their tests, because on that date the new practical motorcycle test will be introduced to comply with European legislation. The aim of that legislation is to improve the standard of road safety for motorcycle and moped riders. There are good arguments for improving the test for motorcyclists because a disproportionate number of the accidents on our roads involve motorcyclists. As well as all the human suffering that a fatal accident causes, it is estimated to cost £1.5 million to society
3 Apr 2008 : Column 995
generally. Despite the benefits of the new testing regime, there are serious deficiencies in the way in which the Government are introducing it.

In order to carry out the new practical test, the Government are constructing multi-purpose test centres. A few years ago, they agreed that most learners should be able to reach a test site within 45 minutes’ travelling time and by travelling no more than 20 miles from their home. However, the construction of the new test centres is running well behind schedule. For example, in Scotland only two test centres are operational, one in Glasgow and one just outside Edinburgh. By September, when the new test becomes compulsory, the Driving Standards Agency expects only three more sites to be operational in Scotland—in Wick, Inverness and Kirkcaldy. That will leave a very large part of Scotland, including nearly all my constituency, well outside the 20 miles. In fact, some of the learner motorcyclists on the mainland parts of my constituency will have a round trip of well over 200 miles and even greater problems will face learners from the islands.

For example, at present the test can be carried out on the isle of Tiree. However, in future someone from there will have to make a three-day round trip, with two nights away from home, to sit the test. The DSA says that it is negotiating for other sites. Oban in my constituency was on the original published list of sites, but what the DSA terms the “Oban site” may end up in Fort William— 44 miles from Oban and well over 130 miles from Campbeltown, which is at the other end of my constituency. Even if the Fort William site proceeds, and that is by no means certain, it will definitely not be ready by the time the new tests start in September.

There are no transitional arrangements; on 29 September, every learner in the country will have to go to one of the new test centres to sit their test. The new system has already resulted in a business casualty in my constituency. Just a few days ago, a motorcycle school in Oban closed; the owners said that there was no point in continuing to teach motorcyclists if they had to travel all the way to Glasgow to take their tests, rather than take their tests locally as they can at the moment.

I ask the Government urgently to rethink their plans for test centres. Better testing may well save lives, but only if it is accessible to learners. Under the current proposals it is not; round trips of hundreds of miles, or three-day round trips for islanders, cannot be considered to represent accessibility. I have already seen one motorcycle school close and I am sure that others elsewhere in the country will do so. Furthermore, there is a risk with the new scheme: people will be tempted to skip the test and use their motorcycles illegally if the test centre is too far away. Given the cost to society of a fatal accident—the human cost, plus the estimated £1.5 million financial cost—I urge the Government to ensure that there is an easily accessible range of test centres and to remember the 45-minute, 20-mile commitment that they gave a few years ago.

I want to raise another issue, which is of great concern to the hill farming community in my constituency—the European Union proposals for electronic sheep tagging. They are still at the consultation stage, but the current proposals for the recording of individual sheep movements are completely impractical in a hill farm setting. They
3 Apr 2008 : Column 996
would involve recording each individual sheep’s identity when a batch of sheep was being moved, but that is simply not necessary; recording the batch movement itself would be just as good for the purposes of disease control and food safety.

Batch recording is in use at present and delivers a sustainable and robust method of recording sheep movements. It delivers food traceability and disease monitoring, as was demonstrated during last year’s foot and mouth outbreak. Through the batch recording of sheep movements, every sheep in Scotland was traced within three days of the outbreak on 3 August. The current proposals are completely impractical in a hill farm setting, where flocks can be made up of more than 1,000 animals. The price of sheep is so low that the sheep farming industry simply could not sustain the price of electronic identification technology. When a batch of sheep is moved, recording batch movements, rather than each individual sheep’s identity, is perfectly adequate for disease control and food safety purposes. I urge the Government to ensure in the negotiations at EU level that the proposed regulations are modified to reflect that.

There is mounting concern in the Scottish shipbuilding industry at the delay in signing the contract to build the new aircraft carriers. The shipbuilding industry supports thousands of jobs in Scotland and is desperately waiting for the new aircraft carrier contract. I hope that the Government will sign that contract soon to allow the work to start. I also want to make the case for the carriers, once they are in service, to be based at the Clyde naval base at Faslane. Faslane has superb facilities. It is a superbly sheltered anchorage that gives enough clearance for large ships such as the new aircraft carriers to dock at low tide. There is enough space round about to accommodate all the back-up support that the carriers would require, as well as plenty of skilled workers within easy travelling distance and plenty of empty Ministry of Defence housing. Faslane has the setting, in the Gareloch, and the local infrastructure and work force to be an ideal location for basing the new carriers.

My next subject—this time it is not a complaint but a welcome—is the Competition Commission’s proposal for a new grocery supply code of practice, with the easily remembered acronym of GSCOP, and an ombudsman to police it. I welcome that recommendation because the current supermarket code of practice has proven ineffective at protecting farmers and other suppliers from exploitation. A good example is the huge difference between the price of milk at the farm gate and on the supermarket shelf. When the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs investigated that, it could never quite get to the bottom of where all the money was going, and the new code of practice and ombudsman are ideal for that purpose. I hope that the Government will take those proposals on board and give them their backing, and that GSCOP and the ombudsman will quickly be put in place.

Finally, I want to raise an issue that has been raised by almost every hon. Member who has spoken—post offices. In my constituency, the axe has already fallen and eight post offices have closed, but that may not be the end of the matter. It may be the end of the compulsory closures in this scheme, but I am worried about the long-term viability of many of the post offices that have escaped the axe.

3 Apr 2008 : Column 997

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend is right to be concerned, because sometimes even when one is given a promise, as we were during the last set of closures, that is not the end of the matter. We were told that the closure of two post offices—Abbey street and Bermondsey street—would result in the Dockhead service being strengthened and made more successful for the future, as it has been, but we now discover that the Post Office is saying that another one has to go. He is absolutely right to take these promises of “closure now and all safe later” with more than a pinch of salt.

Mr. Reid: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he is quite right.

The main concern of all the postmasters and postmistresses in my constituency is what is going to happen to the Post Office card account after 2010. We are still waiting for a formal announcement from the Department for Work and Pensions. If the Post Office is not successful in being given the POCA, I can envisage far more post offices in my constituency being forced to close. A warning of what could happen came when the TV licence contract was given to PayPoint. PayPoint has a large network of shops throughout the country, but they nearly all tend to be in towns and large urban areas—they do not have a rural network. For example, several islands in my constituency have a post office but no PayPoint outlet, so people cannot pay their TV licence over the counter any more, and the whole of the rural north Argyll area has no PayPoint outlet but several post offices. There is fear that the Government may give the contract to the likes of PayPoint or a consortium of banks, which do not have the rural network that the Post Office has.

I urge the Government to write into the specification of the contract that whoever wins it must have a rural network—and an island network, which is important for my constituency. If the Post Office does not win that contract, it will mean the axe for a huge number of other post offices, and it will make it difficult for people to collect their pensions and benefits. I urge Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions to specify that whoever wins the contract, it must have a large rural network. I believe that the Post Office is the only organisation that can deliver that contract. The announcement must be made fairly soon to give security to postmasters and mistresses.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise those issues. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass them on to the relevant Ministers. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all hon. Members and all staff of the House a very enjoyable April recess.

4.30 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): I am grateful to be able to raise a few issues on behalf of my constituents, although I can certainly relate to a number of the other issues raised by hon. Members today.

The first issue is the minimum wage and the low-paid. We have heard a lot over the past few weeks about the minimum wage rising to £5.73 an hour, but when we look at the moneys that people actually receive on that sort of wage, we find a 40-hour week giving £11,950 a year. If we add the basic working tax credit and the
3 Apr 2008 : Column 998
child tax credit, we have a total of £14,295. We are told that the poverty level is anything below £15,000 a year, so we can see that there are significant problems with the level of the minimum wage. I support the comments of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who said that the minimum wage needs to be reviewed.

I am told that the average wage in my constituency is £18,000 a year. If we take a simple figure of 10 people, with one of them earning £100,000 and the other nine earning £10,000, we find that the average is £19,000. But only one of them would be on a significant wage, so averages are very misleading. If we take out those on significant earnings, such as the Member of Parliament, local authority officers, doctors and nurses, we find that the people earning lower wages in factories and shops are nowhere near even the average wage in my constituency, but we expect those people to pay rising fuel bills and council tax bills. That shows just how difficult it is for people to survive.

My constituency has the highest rate of band D properties in Wales. According to any of the other statistics that we could look at, it is one of the poorest boroughs—we have high deprivation levels—but we pay the highest council tax, at band D level. The average house price is £110,000. Even if someone was on the average wage—if it was £18,000—how on earth would they afford a property that cost £100,000?

Alongside that is a case that has been discussed in this House on many occasions—council housing. There should be support for councils so that they can have a level playing field with housing associations and other providers of social housing. The worry is how long social housing lasts. Is it up to the first buyer, or the second buyer? How long is shared equity? Is it for life? How do those who buy at shared equity levels ever move on? It is necessary to ring-fence social housing to ensure that affordable housing is always available. It is extremely difficult for people with an income averaging at about £15,000, £16,000 or £17,000 to get a mortgage at the level of £60,000, £65,000 or £70,000.

I support wholeheartedly the scrutiny of MPs that has been initiated during the past few months with regard to how we operate, how we are paid and how we are paid expenses, but it should apply to all those paid by the public purse, including local councillors and MEPs. It should not stop at the House. I asked several local councillors and officers for whom they work, and the answer was invariably the same: the local authority. I asked again, “Who do you work for?” and they answered again, “The local authority.” Not once did anyone say that they work for the people, that they are paid from the public purse and that they are there on behalf of the people. There will always be times when they cannot deliver the people’s expectations, but hiding is not the answer.

We have heard about planning and house building. If land is in the ownership of the borough council, who owns it? When a borough council decides to sell off its land, surely it should ask the people. Around our community, there are fields and green areas owned by the borough council, but sold off for development with almost no consultation.

There is a huge difference between consultation and negotiation. If there is to be consultation, it should be meaningful. If there is no intention to listen and pay
3 Apr 2008 : Column 999
heed to those consulted, it should not be done. The credibility of politics is a problem for all of us. Not listening to the people whom we represent is a cardinal sin. We may not like what comes back from the community, but we walk away from it at our peril. We are driving people away from the political process. When we have local consultation and the involvement of local people, they should drive the decisions. They should be involved at every opportunity, but we do not involve them; we isolate them at every opportunity in the hope that perhaps they will go away.

The previous debate was about the drugs strategy. I intended to speak then, but I hoped to contribute to the current debate, so I left my comments until now. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for his work on the all-party group on drugs misuse. Recently, we met a group of young people from all over the country to discuss the drugs strategy. The first thing on which they picked up was the lack of input from young people. There are few conversations with young people. They do not have to be with those who take drugs; they could be with those who would argue against that. We should ask for their input on what we should do to prevent young people from becoming addicts. Schools and education are huge topics, and time and again young people say, “No one asks us. We are told what education we should receive, but we’re not asked.”

Let me consider inactivity. When the Government pledge funds to community facilities, I am sure that we all support that. The problem is how long the funding will last and whether it is short-term funding, with borough councils then saying that they cannot afford to help and support community centres and youth projects. It is no good funding something for six months, 12 months or two years. If we cannot fund according to need, there is no point in funding.

We need to fund more youth workers and social services so that the contact with those who need them happens where the problems occur. I recently spoke to some of our police officers, who said that they were providing cover because there is no input from social services and not enough youth workers. We need to be proactive, not reactive. At the moment, we put pressure on our police forces to be reactive rather than putting permanent structures in place. Yes, that means money, but if it is well spent, it will pay dividends in future. I hope that the Government will listen to some of those arguments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish you, the staff of the House and all hon. Members a peaceful and restful recess.

4.39 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I join other hon. Members in sending my best wishes to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who is not currently in her place, on her birthday. Whatever her age, she does not look it. The Deputy Leader of the House smiles; I hope that she will deal with all the points that the hon. Lady made. I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) his passionate support for ladies playing sport. Like him I
3 Apr 2008 : Column 1000
have a daughter who plays sport—mine is a successful female footballer—so I applaud any strategies to encourage ladies to play sport.

There are 10 points that I wish to raise before the end of this April Adjournment debate. Because of the shortage of time I will rattle through them, but the Deputy Leader of the House is very good at ensuring that I receive answers to my points in due course. My first point is about parliamentary questions—a subject that was raised at business questions earlier. The Leader of the House gave an assurance that the practice of Departments referring hon. Members to websites would no longer be seen as satisfactory.

The reason why I ask a lot of written questions is that I do not always receive answers to my original questions. To give the Deputy Leader of the House just one example, last year I asked the Home Secretary about her meetings with Sir Ian Blair. I did not expect her to tell me the detail of every location and so on, but the process of answering that question has been tortuous, and at the end of it all I am still none the wiser. Some Departments are splendid and give good answers, but others are very tardy.

Now that my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has returned to the Chamber, I want to congratulate him on his campaign to improve the A12 network, which, as an Essex MP, I know would certainly benefit my constituents.

Mr. Burns: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous comments, but it would be unfair of me to take all the credit for what is happening. Essex county council is doing tremendous work, as he knows, but I also pay tribute to the Essex Chronicle, my local paper, which, in the finest traditions of all local papers, has mounted a vigorous campaign to get action to redress the problems on that important road.

Mr. Amess: In the true modest style of an Essex Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend is not taking the credit for the campaign. I join him in congratulating his local newspaper on its campaign.

Secondly, I am the chairman of the all-party group on inflammatory arthritis. There is a type of arthritis called—I hope that I can pronounce this properly—ankylosing spondylitis, which is a chronic degenerative arthritis of the joints that causes inflammation at the sites where ligaments and tendons attach to the bone. Ankylosing spondylitis is an incredibly painful type of arthritis that is quite difficult to treat and for which there is no known cure. However, there are treatments and medications available to reduce the symptoms and the pain.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recently undertook an evaluation of the latest treatments for adult patients with severe forms of the condition. After considering all the evidence, NICE recommended that the two most cost-effective treatments should be available to patients through the NHS. Those treatments can also be administered by the patient at home instead of in hospital, thereby enabling them to take control of their condition and medication. That is a good decision, supporting a modern NHS.

Next Section Index Home Page