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22 May 2008 : Column 436

Thirdly, in the other part of my constituency, which is in Blaby district, a bypass is being built in Earl Shilton, between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick). There, a report of great crested newts had to be investigated. I happen to like newts. When I was a child I used to catch them, look at them and put them back in ponds, as I am sure we all did. Now, with the ludicrous bureaucratic nonsense that we have, one needs a licence to handle newts. Did hon. Members know that? A licence to pick up a newt, for heaven’s sake.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I hope Ken has one.

Mr. Robathan: Indeed.

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there are 66,000 breeding ponds of great crested newts in Britain, yet Leicestershire county council has just had to spend £1.2 million of my money, hon. Members’ money and my constituents’ money on a plan to erect fencing to prevent great crested newts being affected by the Earl Shilton bypass. The newts are not rare. If there are 66,000 breeding ponds, how can they be? I could take hon. Members, if they wish, to a place where I could find 10 tomorrow.

The lifecycle of the great crested newts means that they come out of semi-hibernation in the spring and move to a pond. After they have laid their spawn, in early summer, they move off. Nobody knows where they go. They go up and down the ditches of Leicestershire and elsewhere, and they may be found wherever they feel they want to go. They do a useful job catching slugs, snails and so on. However, the idea that we should spend £1.2 million of taxpayers’ money after a newt was allegedly found—none was found after the fencing was erected—is ludicrous. It is a matter of great concern that we should have reached that point. I shall soon introduce a ten-minute Bill about that. I shall also mention bats.

I like bats. I went on the bat walk organised by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) last summer. We did not see any bats around the House of Commons, but never mind—it was very interesting. The fact that disturbing a bat could lead to a fine of X thousand pounds is ridiculous. Of course we should protect bats, but we should balance that with the needs of the human population. I hope we may be able to examine the matter further.

Finally, I shall deal with a survey that I recently carried out in the only Labour-held county council ward in my constituency. The survey was carried out entirely with South Leicestershire Conservative Association money—no communications allowance, none of that dosh, was taken from the public purse and wasted on my constituents. Unusually, I have had a large number of replies to the survey over the past couple of weeks and they are still coming in.

That is interesting, on the day of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, because Members, particularly those on the somewhat sparsely populated Labour Benches, need to realise, after 11 years of Labour government, how angry people are. The ward, as I said, was Labour-held, not part of the plush, rich, Jaguar and gin-belt set, the sort of place where it might be imagined that people vote Conservative. I shall not
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quote all the replies, or we would be here until the rise of the House. I asked whether people feel safe. The replies stated:


I also asked people whether they felt better off. A disabled constituent stated:

I am not saying that we should pay everybody’s gas and electricity bills, but after 11 years of this Government wittering on about fuel poverty—we heard it earlier today at Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform questions—people are still suffering, which is something to lay at this Government’s door.

The other thing that concerns people is the increase in immigration—my constituency is on the edge of Leicester. One constituent stated:

That feeling is growing throughout this country. I am bemused as to why the Labour party is undermining the labouring classes, who have only their labour to sell, by introducing a cheap source of labour into this country. Many Labour Members, and perhaps the Government, appear to want to do that, but it undermines the ability of the working classes—if I am allowed to use that expression—to sell their labour. That is what has happened, and that is what my constituents are telling me. In those letters, my constituents tell me—not in British National party fury but in sorrow—that their country has been “overrun” in a way they did not expect. Those people are not racist—well, one or two are, if the truth be known, but most of them are not. I hope that the Government will take note, because they will get the same answer from the good people of Crewe and Nantwich today.

Finally, I want to return to eco-towns, which are of general interest. This is where I might team up with the hon. Member for Thurrock on conspiracy. The Environment Agency is meant to protect our environment, and it issues a magazine, which I am sure that we all avidly read, called Your Environment. Issue 19, which is the responsibility of the Environment Agency director of communications, Adrian Long, covers May to July this year and comments on eco-towns. Whatever eco-towns do, if Pennbury is built—I hope it is not—it is hardly likely to enhance the wildlife of the area, as thousands of homes will be built in the middle of fields, streams and woods. I am sure that the Government will deny that that publication is propaganda, but issue 19 states that

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I am not a biologist, but I think that the local wildlife in this particular case would disagree.

1.53 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a couple of issues that concern my constituents.

The movement of housing stock from council control to an arm’s length management organisation—or in our case, Welsh housing associations—is a great concern. My constituents cannot understand why the Government will not allow councils to retain their housing stock and obtain funds to regenerate it. The stated reasons include the public sector borrowing requirement and the effects on the economy, but housing associations are allowed to do that.

There is more need than ever before in constituencies such as mine for affordable rented accommodation. House prices and wages are out of sync—the average wage is around £13,000; the average house price is around £100,000. In many cases, rented accommodation is the only option. As and when council properties move over to a housing association, what quality of maintenance and response to need will that housing association provide? Rumours are flying around that rents increase within weeks of an association taking over housing stock. What review has been carried out of the effectiveness of previous transfers to associations? The issue of rent money being held by the Treasury was raised earlier, and the concern is that money from the sale of housing stock, which has gone on for a considerable time, has not been reinvested in housing.

On shared equity housing, how long does a house remain a shared equity property? One can own 70 per cent. of a house, and a housing association can own the other 30 per cent., but does such a house always remain a social house, or does the housing association have the right at some time in the future to sell it off at full price? And how do individuals who own part of a house move on? How will they afford to own 100 per cent. of a house? There is a need for social housing, but it must be balanced against an individual’s ability to live and work.

When the empty business rates tax was first considered in this House I supported it, but with hindsight I think it has caused considerable problems. A number of business premises in my constituency are empty not because the owner does not want to fill them, but because the economy will not allow that to happen. Those owners must now find the moneys to pay the extra tax. Some individuals have been criminalised—they have even been taken to court—because they cannot afford to pay. I agree that empty properties are not what a community needs for regeneration, but to punish individuals who have done their best to run businesses is not the way to do it.

In their advance statement about the Queen’s Speech, the Government announced the possibility of their taking over empty and derelict houses and revamping them to sell on. One of the issues that we have discussed locally—I hope that the Government consider this—is empty business premises. Some shops in parts of my constituency have been empty for some years. I have fought to get grants to allow such shops to be returned to domestic dwellings rather than businesses. There is a
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huge need for the reintroduction of grants for revamping business premises and domestic dwellings, and I hope that the Government consider the social and regeneration aspects of that point. When premises, whether houses or businesses, are boarded up, it does nothing for the community or the local economy.

Those are the two main issues, and I hope that the Government consider them in detail. I wish the staff of the House and all hon. Members a peaceful and restful week off.

1.58 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I hesitate to take up the House’s time by further referring to the issue of Members’ private home addresses being published, but this is one of the few opportunities available to me to develop the argument, which I shall do in detail.

Every hon. Member has a few special skills, some of which are more valuable than others. I have very few special skills, one of which is particularly rarefied—I have an understanding of the way in which extremists’ minds work. Were I an extremist, I would be cheering on the freedom of information campaigners who are urging, for misguided reasons, that the private home addresses of Members of this House should be made public in an easily accessible form.

I first learned to be careful about my private home address 31 years ago, when I was involved in a nasty campaign concerning the infiltration of a democratic party in this country by an extremist organisation. It was impossible in those circumstances for my address in the then constituency of Newham, North-East to be kept secret.

A number of things happened in the course of that campaign, including someone tampering with the brakes of my motorcycle, which caused me to sustain a significant injury, and the subsequent hurling of a boulder through my bedroom window late at night. I was fortunate that, as it hit the masonry, only the glass penetrated into the room and on to the bed where I was sleeping, rather than the boulder itself.

A few years after that campaign was over, I believe that it was the investigative journalist Barrie Penrose who wrote an interesting story in The Sunday Times about a firm of investigators called Detectives (Private) Associates, which had, in part of that campaign, been bugging my telephone lines and making use of the political information. Even if I were not concerned about my personal safety, the case raised the question of my right to privacy to campaign, in what I believe was a democratic way, on an issue that was causing great concern to the political parties of the day. It was causing concern not only to the Labour party, with which I was involved at the time, but to anybody who was concerned about the way in which extremism was trying to infiltrate democratic institutions.

Subsequently, a number of other campaigns involved my dealing with organisations of political extremists at home and Governments of a totalitarian nature abroad. I never doubted that if any of those bodies really set their mind to it and made a special effort, concentrating all their resources on it—they might simply follow me late one night—they would eventually be able to find out where I lived. I did not see that then, and I do not see it now, as a justification for making it easy for anybody to be able to dial up, at the touch of a
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button, where I live. At least if someone is going to have a go at me, let them have to work hard to find out the information as to how they are going to do so.

In those days, I was on my own, but now I live with my partner—at least, I live with my partner at my London address. If people are perhaps to know where my constituency home address is—I shall discuss that point in a moment or two—at least my partner is not exposed to nearly the same level of risk. That is because somebody might decide to have a go at me at, or, more likely, send something through the post to, my constituency home address than to my London home address, where she lives.

As a result of not only those past campaigns and the experience that I have gained from them, but a recent event—I was involved for five years in trying to build up a case against a career criminal who had defrauded my elderly father of thousands of pounds for building work that had not been completed, and my lawyer advised me that it would extremely unwise for any of my addresses to be made easily publicly available— I decided that I would take on this issue.

I did not do so because, as one might think, I felt myself particularly at risk, although I am particularly at risk. I am one of the people most likely to benefit from the exemption that has been laid down all along by the Information Commissioner and by the Information Tribunal appeal ruling of 26 February, paragraph 84(7) of which stated:

For those who do not understand that term, may I say that it means that whenever any piece of information about our expenses spent on such an address is made public, the actual address should be blacked out. One would have thought that that was a simple enough thing, but it appears to have escaped the understanding of the Information Commissioner and the judges who have subsequently pronounced, in their wisdom, on those questions.

I would almost certainly be able to claim that exemption for myself, but as a result of my experiences, I have felt it particularly important to try to ensure that similar protection is extended to my colleagues, who might not have had my experiences and who might not yet be subject to the same sorts of threats that would entitle them to claim an individual exemption on the same basis as me.

Andrew Mackinlay: I want to tell the House and the hon. Gentleman that as a result of one of my parliamentary activities, I received 600 threatening and menacing letters—by hard copy, not by e-mail. Leaving aside the matter of their contents, if they had arrived at my home, as, inevitably, such letters will, I would have faced the logistical, practical problem of trying to identify which were my own private mail and which were those hateful, menacing letters. This issue has not been understood.

Dr. Lewis: I welcome that response, which takes me nicely on in my line of argument. I am sure that only a momentary oversight has prevented the hon. Gentleman
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from adding his signature to early-day motion 1620 on this matter, and I look forward to his doing so. It is not fair to expect Mr. Speaker constantly to have to stick his neck out to defend what the hon. Gentleman previously referred to in another context as the privileges of this House if Mr. Speaker is not made firmly aware of the united opinion of this House when it needs him to defend our privileges or, as some would call them, our rights. This is a matter of rights.

Let us consider the question of mail, which the hon. Gentleman so rightly raised. If I were applying an extremist mind to an extremist cause—I like to think that I apply my mind to moderate causes, such as the defeat of extremism—I know what I would do if I wanted to knock this ridiculous proposal on the head. I would buy a large packet of white soap powder and 646 envelopes, and I would then place a quantity of the soap powder in each envelope, together with a little note saying, “Ha, ha. You have just opened a packet of anthrax”, and send an envelope to each of the 646 private home addresses. Of course, people would not have opened a packet of anthrax, but it would take a brave or reckless MP not to take the trouble of immediately contacting the emergency services in case the envelope of white powder really did contain anthrax, as has happened in a case in the United States.

Are we insane enough to make this sort of information nationally available? If an experienced, professional, terrorist organisation is determined to knock off a particular MP, it will, of course, track that MP and do something bad to him. But why should we make it easy for such an organisation to do the same thing to 645 other MPs at the same time? I could not understand how we reached this state until today’s business questions, when the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said something that I had not known: that when these matters were being argued before the relevant commissions, no professional security advice had apparently even been taken. What on earth did the officials of this House think they were playing at when they omitted to take that basic step?

Mr. Bacon: My hon. Friend is making an extremely interesting speech. Is not his revelation of the failures to take security advice all the more extraordinary in light of the fact that I can remember three Members of Parliament being murdered in my adult lifetime because they were MPs?

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