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22 May 2008 : Column 460
3.18 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I thank all the speakers who have taken part in today’s debate. There were not as many Members as there normally are in debates on the Adjournment, but I suspect that that is probably something to do with the fact that some of our colleagues are in Crewe and Nantwich. That fact did not detract in any way from the quality of the speakers, nor from the variety of subjects that were covered.

We started off with a speech by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). At the outset, let me add to the various tributes that have been paid to Tom Burlison and express my sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.

The hon. Member for North Durham made a very thoroughly researched speech, in which he raised some very serious issues about the Durham National Union of Mineworkers. He also referred to the solicitors’ firm Thompsons, and I wish him well in his attempts to get to the bottom of what is an ongoing problem. I suggest that he might consider making a complaint about Thompsons to the Law Society, as it has a special division that deals with concerns about legal practices.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) made a very thoughtful speech. He put forward a strong case against the closure of Henderson hospital, which has rendered careful service to its community over some 60 years. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on his concerns to the Department of Health. I also hope that she will pass on to that Department his very worrying remarks about the drugs used on vulnerable adults and senior citizens.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made a typically robust and forthright speech, which included a very lively contribution about our security and intelligence services. The fact that he raised some very interesting points was reflected in the number of interventions that he took. At one point, the number of interventions was so vast that I thought that this debate would continue to the usual 6 o’clock deadline, but fortunately they ceased after a while. May I also commend the hon. Gentleman for his excellent good sense in not supporting the proposal on 42 days’ detention about which the Government are bullying everyone else in his party to accept? I hope that he will succeed in persuading a lot of his colleagues that detaining people for 42 days would be far too long.

The hon. Member for Thurrock also trailed his memoirs. I very much hope that publishers out there have taken note and are taking out their cheque books to make an advance payment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) spoke forcefully, as always, on behalf of his constituents. He rightly spoke of their concern about the proposed eco-town in Pembury, and I share his concern over the future of Lutterworth hospital. He also very eloquently summed up the public’s anger with this Government: they say that they are listening, but they do not seem to have heard much so far.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) spoke passionately about his constituency concerns, which included housing and associated matters such as shared equity and housing associations. He also spoke about the very real problems of the empty business
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rates taxes, and I hope that the Government will take on board the concerns that he expressed on behalf of his constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made a powerful speech about the disclosure of Members’ addresses. His personal experiences serve as a strong warning about the potential dangers that we all face. I for one believe—as I think that most hon. Members do—that there should be the utmost transparency but, while I recognise that we are public figures, I think that we are entitled to some of the courtesies that are due to all citizens. The security of our addresses is certainly one of those courtesies. We are public figures, but we are also entitled to some of the privileges of the ordinary citizen.

Mr. Bacon: It is right and proper to urge transparency when public money such as the additional cost allowance is being spent, but does my hon. Friend agree that transparency about the disclosure of home addresses is a different matter?

Mr. Vara: I agree entirely: my hon. Friend is right to say that transparency is of the utmost importance—we all agree about that—but that a distinction must be made. Society has become a lot more hostile towards western countries, especially Britain and America, and the security of the people who speak about such matters in debates in this House deserves to be considered very seriously. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East well in his campaign to ensure some sense of secrecy regarding Members’ addresses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) made an excellent speech, as he always does, and spoke with great diligence on behalf of his constituents. He very properly pointed out that crime and antisocial behaviour are linked with the horrendous figures on drugs and alcohol, and presented some startling facts about that cocktail of drugs, alcohol, crime and antisocial behaviour. I agree with him that, with our hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) at the helm of London now, it is to be hoped that—and I am pretty confident that—we will see an improvement in those figures. He is certainly making a start by banning alcohol on public transport in London. That is eminently sensible, and it seems absurd that it was not done many years before. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford also discussed the rising cost of living—an issue that affects not only his constituents but people throughout the country. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to pass on that message to her fellow Front Benchers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made a very forceful speech and echoed the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford when he spoke about the rising cost of living. He gave some very helpful advice to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who I hope will take it on board. He seems not to have taken on board much from many people so far, but I hope that he will accept that advice, given that he has the recess to think it through. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley that there is a very strong argument for the retention of public telephone boxes. I wish him well in his campaign in that regard.

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We concluded with a very measured speech from my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who gave us some disturbing details on the mismanagement of a particular college. The manipulation of figures, the falsifying of attendances and the 300 or so discrepancies picked up by PricewaterhouseCoopers lead to the conclusion that a detailed inquiry is required. I wish my hon. Friend well in trying to get a thorough and detailed inquiry.

On that note, Madam Deputy Speaker, all that remains is for me to wish you a very happy recess, along with all Members and their staff and all the staff who serve us so well in the House. I suspect that, given the enormous footwork that some Members will have undertaken in the previous weeks in Crewe and Nantwich, the recess is very well deserved.

3.27 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): It is of course a great pleasure to take part in this afternoon’s Adjournment debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), who gave his usual clear and urbane speech.

The debate was opened by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), but given that what he said ties in with some things that I want to say about my own constituency, I shall begin by responding to the remarks of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). He began by raising the very important issue of the treatment of people with serious mental health problems, and in particular his concerns about the Henderson hospital. He is right. It is important that the financial management of the NHS produce rational decisions, but I should remind him that 31 per cent. more in the way of resources is going into mental health than was the case in 1996. I also want to reassure him that the guidance to medical practitioners is that anti-psychotic drugs must be used only in appropriate medical circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about public housing and the financial management system in housing departments. I understand that a review of council housing finance is under way and will report in September 2009, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Minister for Housing, so that she can take account of them in the course of that review.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Will the Deputy Leader of the House ask the Minister for Housing whether she will allow SFTRA—the Southern Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations—to participate in some of the working groups that are being set up to consider the issue?

Helen Goodman: I will, of course, ensure that the Minister for Housing is made aware of that representation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)—

Mr. Robathan: Where is he?

Helen Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman says, it is—

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Mr. Evans: In the light of what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said and the fact that he is always looking over his shoulder—perhaps at Ministers or even at the Whips, given some of his independent views—will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us whether she knows his whereabouts and at least that he is safe and sound?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend the Whip assures me that the Whips Office has nothing to do with my hon. Friend’s disappearance this afternoon. I am disappointed that he is not here because he linked his concerns about Parliament’s oversight of the security and intelligence services to his concerns about 42 days’ detention. I hope very much that when he reads what I have to say in Hansard, he will be persuaded of why he should vote with the Government on 42 days. He may not be aware of the fact that the Lord Chancellor has made proposals in the context of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill to make a radical change to the way that the security services are overseen and to enable the statutory Committee that does such work to operate differently. In particular, the names submitted in the nomination process will come before the House, before the Prime Minister makes the appointments. That is a significant improvement.

There will also be greater transparency because some briefings will be held in public. The Committee will be able to appoint investigators if it wishes to do so. Debates will be held on the Intelligence and Security Committee’s annual reports in both Houses, not just the Commons, and those debates will be opened by the Chairman of that Committee. So I hope my hon. Friend will feel reassured that we are moving forward, opening up and making accountable the process in a way that is suitable for the 21st century.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the way that the Data Protection Act 1998 operates. I am not sure whether he has had time to look at the Government’s draft legislative programme, which includes a communications data Bill that will help to ensure that crucial capabilities in the use of communications data for counter-terrorism continue to be available, but the powers will be subject to strict safeguards to ensure that there is the right balance between privacy and protecting the public.

My hon. Friend raised the case of Wouter Basson, and I will refer his remarks to the Home Office, which is the responsible Department.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) spoke about a wide variety of issues. He spoke first about eco-towns and the demand for extra housing. He is clearly not aware of the fact that two thirds of the demand for new housing is due to the fact that we in this country are living in smaller households. More single-person households mean that we need to change and grow the housing stock.

Mr. Robathan: I am perfectly well aware of the changing lifestyles of the British people. However, I should like to ask the Deputy Leader of the House—she obviously knows a great deal about this—how many small households and flats are intended for Pennbury in Leicestershire?

Helen Goodman: Well, I cannot possibly answer that question because, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware,
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there is a consultation going on about all the eco-towns proposed by the Government. From what he said earlier, I am sure he will take part in that consultation.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to have a rather ambivalent attitude towards great crested newts. He asserted that he loved them, but he was not prepared to see the Government take the steps that they must take to implement the habitats directive.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the reconfiguration of hospital beds in his area, and in particular about Lutterworth hospital. My understanding is that the future of the hospital is being developed with a group of local clinicians, staff, PCT representatives, and adult social care, patient and public representatives, so his constituents should have a good opportunity to make their views clear in that consultation.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman told us about a survey of one part of his constituency and reflected back some of the issues that had been raised with him. One of those was fuel poverty, about which he claimed to be concerned. I therefore do not understand why he and the Tory party opposed the introduction of the winter fuel allowance by the Government, and its extension.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of immigration and its impact on low-paid workers. I hope he welcomed the statement from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on temporary and agency workers.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the Minister, who is delivering her speech with great good humour. First, I do not think the Conservative party opposed the winter fuel allowance. Secondly, the point is that the policies are not working. That is why we criticise them. There is increasing fuel poverty, as we heard at DBERR questions only this morning, and immigration is patently out of control, as even the Labour party’s supporters are saying.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman is not correct about fuel poverty. There is less fuel poverty now than there was 10 years ago because the Government introduced the winter fuel allowance and lifted 1 million pensioners out of pensioner poverty. That was the group most prone to suffer from fuel poverty. Moreover, the Warm Front programme and the programmes for insulation, new boilers and new radiators are running at an investment rate of £600 million a year. That means that not only are we lifting people out of fuel poverty and saving on their fuel bills, but we are making a sensible contribution to combating climate change.

Finally, on immigration, I hope the hon. Gentleman will support the Government’s points-based system, which is to be introduced shortly.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) spoke about council housing and his desire to see the council housing in his constituency refurbished. He questioned why it was necessary to put the management out to an arm’s length management organisation. Let me take the hon. Gentleman into my confidence. I questioned the policy until I saw the way it operated in my constituency. One of my local authorities, Wear Valley, has an ALMO, and the quality of management and the level of investment have improved out of all
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proportion. I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the outcomes of the policy and bear in mind the fact that by 2010, 95 per cent. of homes will have reached the decent homes standard in only two years as a result of the policy.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made a serious speech about hon. Members’ rights and privileges. He pointed to the fact that those rights and privileges are given to MPs not as individuals but in their role as Members of this House. He is concerned about the security of individual hon. Members and pointed to the importance of hon. Members being able to speak and vote honestly and according to their consciences without fear for their safety or that of their families. He stated that it is important to consider hon. Members’ security when they are not in the Palace of Westminster and that the security situation of hon. Members is both uncertain and unpredictable.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I am sorry to take up more time, but a number of hon. Members have raised an additional point: the publication of constituency addresses, which will occur in a number of cases, could be described as a burglars charter, because hon. Members spend part of the week in their constituencies and a lot of their week at Westminster. If some bright spark were to collate the constituency addresses, whether as a result of the freedom of information request or any other investigations that they may see fit to pursue, we would be advertising the fact that lots of properties are empty at certain times of the week. I wonder what the insurance companies will say about that when we renew our premiums—perhaps the public purse would have to step in that respect, too.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point. The other people who will be affected by the measure are hon. Members’ neighbours, which is also a factor.

The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) made a wide-ranging speech. He discussed post offices in his constituency, the cost of living and alcohol-related crime. I agree that alcohol-related crime is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. In February, we conducted a national confiscation campaign, which confiscated 40,000 pints of alcohol. However, the hon. Gentleman’s remarks were not wholly consistent with his behaviour, because only a few days ago Conservative Members voted against alcohol disorder zones, which the Government are trying to introduce.

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