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This summer, pay phones are to be closed across my constituency. Very little account has been taken so far
of the poor mobile phone coverage in the area or of the fact that pay phones are often the emergency lifeline for these communities, so I hope that we will see a rethink of plans to close the 46 such phones selected for closure, which represent 27 per cent. of the unprofitable boxes in my constituencya higher proportion than in just about any other part of Scotland.
Soon after we return from the recess, one of the biggest changes affecting the country as a whole will start in earnest in my constituency when we switch over to digital television. I have raised many issues about this matter in the past, but I want to refocus the Governments minds on Freeview Lite and the fact that anyone served by a relay transmitter will get a second-class service with far fewer channels, whether it be on the TV or the radio. With my area having 11 relay stations, almost half my constituents, through no fault of their own, will get that second-class service. If we combine that with doubts about the future of ITV regional news and concerns about the allocation of the digital dividend from the switchover process, we see that very serious problems surround the entire digital switchover process, and the Government need to address themurgently.
One issue causing great anxiety and anger among farmers in my constituency is the proposal to introduce electronic identification tags for sheep, which is going to be compulsory by the end of 2009. We all understand why biosecurity and disease control are uppermost in our minds and we understand the need to follow through the food chain and ensure proper traceability, but one size cannot fit all. With the farming community comprising many different farms with more than 1,000 ewes across the beautiful hills of my constituency, it is simply not practical to implement those proposals. We need a risk-based approach that will be affordable, proportionate and cost-effective for all concerned. A batch recording system would offer us such a scheme, and I am appalled that so far nobody has been able to take it up and accept it. I hope that the Minister will support a feasibility study and a Scottish trial to ensure that we see off the nonsense of the current proposals.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the future of the Her Majestys Revenue and Customs offices in my constituency. So far, we have heard very little detail about the costs that the Government plan to save. I have tabled parliamentary questions and I hope that I will get a response to them. We are in danger of losing high-quality jobs in an area that can ill afford to lose them. It is time for the Government to look hard again at what they are proposing. I hope that they will do so and send out a signal that they understand rural areas.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con):
Many comments from hon. Members of all parties have been about the Post Office card account, and I will discuss the Post Offices future shortly. However, since Christmas, a couple of events have taken place in my constituency that I would like to bring to the Houses attention. On the Dexion front, 700 of my constituents had their pensions stolen from them five years ago. After five years of campaigning, before I was a Member of Parliament and subsequently, with all those people sticking together, trying to get justice for themselves, the Government eventually introduced a compensation package, which would have given my constituents 80 per cent. of the
pensions that were stolen from them. We did not accept thatwe stood our ground and got 90 per cent. Those payments have started to be made in the past few weeks. That proves to me that, if a community sticks together, no matter how big the organisation against which it is fighting, it can win.
Those who drive through my constituency often get stuck because of roadworks on the M1 between junctions 6 and 10. Those works will be finished at Christmas and the widening of the road will open up Hemel Hempstead to much more retail use and many more businesses on the industrial estates. Sadly, the Government appear to have shelved the road widening from junctions 10 to 13, so my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who was here a few moments ago, will still get stuck because the Government have shelved the plans north of Luton.
On a sad note, like many hon. Members, I have been inundated with concerns from my constituents in the rural and urban parts of my constituency about the closure of three post offices. The craziest aspect of the post office closures is the way in which they affect the most affluent and the poorest parts of our constituencies. Most people in the village of Potten End in my constituency would agree that it is a fairly affluent community, but it survives with one shop, with one post office inside it.
Another part of my constituency, the Heights is, according to Government figures, one of the most socially deprived wards in the country, with the highest unemployment and economic inactivity in my constituency. It also has the most pensioners in my constituency. Believe it or not, that post office, too, is closing.
When the Post Office explained to me that the closures had to go ahead, I asked, If my constituents fight, fill in petitions, send letters and contact the head of the Post Office, what difference will it make? The reply was, We cant tell you. Were in consultation. I then simply asked what percentage of consultations were successful. Let us all be honest with our constituentson what percentage of the consultations does the Post Office back off? The answer is 4 per cent. Ninety-six per cent. of proposed post office closures in this country go ahead. Let us be honest: the Government have made a decision and created an economic environment in the post office network that makes post offices not viableI intended to use another word, but it was inappropriate for the Chamber. They are not viable if business keeps being taken away from them and we do not let them sell the products for which our constituents prefer to use the post office.
The other sad situation that continues is that of Hemel Hempstead hospital. Other hon. Members have also expressed concern about the future of their hospitals. The hospital is not Victorian, not falling downit was built in the 1970sand has been expanded over the years. Other hospitals in the Hemel Hempstead area have closed to join the central site, which is close to the M1 and the M25. A decision was made to close acute services therethe elective surgery would go to St. Albans and acute services would go to Watford. We fought that decision and delayed it; we fought it again and delayed it again. However, on the very day of the wonderful service in Westminster abbey to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS, while I was in the queue to go through security, I took a call from the chief executive of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, who told
me that, in the first week in March, Hemel Hempsteads acute services will close and be moved to Watford. For those who do not know where Watford hospital is, it is smack bang next to Watford football stadium. If Watford play at homeI wish the team every success; many of my constituents are Watford fansthey get a reasonable crowd and there is traffic chaos. An extra burden will be created because the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in St. Albans is to close. How on earth are two huge towns such as Watford and Hemel Hempstead, as well as St. Albans, to cope? We will fight the decision. We will not lie down and roll over. There will be another huge demonstration in my constituency in the autumn, when my constituents will again show that they do not want to lose their acute hospital. We do not want a polyclinic to replace an acute general hospitalindeed, we do not want a polyclinic at all. Our surgeries are vibrant and well served. None of the lists of any of the surgeries in the town are full, yet we will have a polyclinic in the middle of it imposed on us, with a catchment and list of about 8,000. That means that some of my surgeries will suffer.
Finally, let me return to football. Sport has been talked about a lot today. Many of the people in the northern part of my constituency support Luton Town football club. It is a wonderfully historic club, but it is going through some particularly difficult times on the pitch, which have been exacerbated by poor management and the attitude of the Football League to a small club such as Luton Town. It will go into the season with a 30-point deduction. It will not survive that, so it will go out of the football league and into the conference. For any team in the country, a 30-point reduction would lead to relegation. For Luton Town, it will mean the end of league status. I do not believe that if Luton Town were Liverpool, Arsenal or any other premiership club, this would have been done to it. It has been done to it because it is a small club in a small community, and it has been hammered by the bureaucrats who want to set an example. They would not have done that to Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United; they should not be doing it to Luton Town.
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): Before the House adjourns for the summer recess, I wish to raise a number of points, but I promise colleagues I shall do so briefly. I would not describe the Government as being in a state of disarray; I actually think they have disintegrated, and I am worried that if this drift continues until 2010, when we must have a general election, the situation will be very serious.
My first point is to do with death. Constituents have petitioned me about the proposed closure of a local coroners office. The office serves my constituency and surrounding constituencies. The proposal has been made without any consultation with the coroner, any related staff or the public. It will diminish the service, and we will be the only jurisdiction without a local service. I hope that message will be passed on.
On post offices, last night I presented a petition signed by more than 1,000 people. It refers to the post office at 553 London road. The post office has been there since 1886, and the area I represent has the greatest number of senior citizens in the country. They cannot go to the post office in Hamlet court road. We
have suffered closures in Fairfax drive, West road, The Ridgeway and Station road, so yet another post office closure would not be acceptable, and I am holding Gary Herbert and Clare Lovett to be as good as their word to me last week and to listen to my new representationthereby pushing up the proportion my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) mentioned from 4 per cent. to 5 per cent.
Her Majestys Revenue and Customs office in Southend is being reorganised. If that goes ahead, there will be a reduction in the local work force of 20 per cent. which would cause devastation locally with another 100 job losses on top of those already announced in 2007. This seems to go completely against the Thames Gateway strategy.
I also wish to draw attention to the new local housing allowance that was introduced on 7 April. Anybody on local housing benefit who changes address will be reassessed under this scheme, and their rent benefit will be curtailed. The effect of that in my constituency is that local residents who are having to change property are in dire straits. This was a cost-cutting measure.
My penultimate point is about equity release. I recently met the director-general of Safe Home Income Plans. The organisation regulates firms that offer equity release packages. In the current economic climate, senior citizens are suffering terribly, so they are having to look into equity release. Safe Home Income Plans deals only with reputable firms, but I am very worried that given the declining reputation of this way of releasing equity, representatives of any number of firms that are not reputable will knock on the doors of senior citizens, who may not be able to read the small print of the documents they are shown.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): This is a rather personal speech, and I apologise for that. Shortly after it became clear that we had won the campaign to prevent MPs home addresses from being disclosed as a result of future freedom of information requests, an honourable Labour lady Member who had suffered badly from the disclosure of her address approached me with a warning. She said, Be careful Julian, you will be targeted next for what you have done.
I had expected from the outset that by organising this campaign, I would inevitably sacrifice some of my privacy by drawing attention to my own electoral arrangements, but I spelt them out in detail in the Whitsun Adjournment debate on 22 May, explaining how I have always registered under a nom de plume for security reasons, by arrangement with the electoral registration officer. On 4 July, the chief executive of New Forest district council, Dave Yates, wrote me a friendly letter in his capacity as electoral registration officer, saying that he wanted me to reconsider my practice of doing that, which had recently come to his attention. That was because the arrangement I had made to do that every year since 1996 had been superseded 12 months ago, by a new system of anonymous registration
that needed to be counter-signed by a chief constable. As soon as Mr. Yates supplied me with the new form, I completed it and obtained the necessary signature, and I am now anonymously registered for the next five yearsalthough it turns out that I may have been wasting my time.
I asked Mr. Yates whether I was correct in thinking that the matter had been raised with him by Terry Scriven, a retired colonel in the military police who will be standing against me at the next election, and he confirmed that that was so. Mr. Scriven could easily have asked me openly about this matter, but he is the sort of individual whom, unfortunately, one encounters from time to time in public lifethe sort of person who smears one in the papers but rushes to shake ones hand when one meets him. He insinuates wrongdoing without having the guts openly to accuse one. His political party is irrelevant to this sort of behaviour, which I have experienced on a number of previous occasions.
registration as a voter under a false name.
It identified my home address in the constituency and asked who had authorised the procedure. The chief executive repliedI believe that he did so on 11 Julyconfirming that I had been registered under the nom de plume by arrangement with the previous electoral registration officer for reasons of personal security, but that, as the law had changed last year, I would be using the new system in future. Mr. Scriven said that he accepted that, and that should have been the end of the matter.
However, last Fridayjust seven days latermy office was informed by Dave Yates and another senior council official, Dave Atwill, that a journalist had been in touch stating that he had seen an e-mail from Dave Yates that seemed to suggest an irregularity in my registration. The journalist was none other than Ben Leapman of The Sunday Telegraphthe only participant in the freedom of information court case who had demanded the publication of all MPs home addresses in order to check that we are not fiddling our expenses.
I fully accept that a newspaper is perfectly at liberty to employ any journalist it likes, although the choice of Mr. Leapman by The Sunday Telegraph has a certain incongruity; it gives me the sort of feeling that Labour Members would have if The Guardian took on my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) or my hon. Friend, as I call him, the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) as its European Union correspondent. Unfortunately, apart from employing an anti-Conservative activist as a political journalist, The Sunday Telegraph has bought into his reckless campaign to expose MPs addresses and has done everything it can to attack me and suppress the arguments against this.
I have reasonably broad shouldersI would not have taken up this issue in the first place if I did not. However, one thing alone dismayed me: the fact that I knew that Terry Scriven had gratuitously included my home address in the e-mail correspondence with Dave Yates. If, as I had every reason to suspect, Mr. Scriven had disclosed these e-mails to Ben Leapman, I wanted to know whether he had at least had the decency to
remove my address before communicating with the one reporter in the country who had ardently campaigned for the publication of MPs home addresses and who, it is reasonable to infer, is extremely upset at the fact that, thanks to my campaign, that will not now happen.
Dear Mr Scriven,
Julian understands that you have made available to a newspaper journalist the exchange of emails between Dave Yates and yourself.
As you know, and appeared to accept, there are security reasons why Julian does not wish his home address to be made public.
Will you please confirm, as soon as possible, whether you removed the...address from these emails before you disclosed them to a third party?
Good Evening Di,
Very nice to hear from you.
I am sure Julian is aware of my security background. I support him totally in keeping the addresses of MPs, Prospective MPs and indeed Councillors addresses private and out of the public domain (this includes journalists).
Dear Mr Scriven,
Two simple questions...Have you disclosed any of the contents of any of Dave Yatess and your e-mails about Julians address to a newspaper reporter or havent you? A simple yes or no is all that is needed ... If the answer is yes, then did you remove the details of his home address ... or didnt you?
I think you need to read my mails carefully and I also think you need to think carefully about how you phrase your emails.
Finally, let us...be clear about the role/capacity you are writing what appear to be demanding emails to me.
Such exchanges were repeated several more times, with Mr. Scriven ducking and diving, dodging and weaving, but ultimately saying that he would clear up any confusions I might have at an event on Sunday at which we would both be present. However, he did not do that, and I handed him a very short letter which asked him to state, without further prevarication, direct answers to those two questions. He took the envelope and headed at high speed to the nearest gentlemens toilet, where he remained for several minutes. It is conceivable that he did not open the envelope there, but I find that hard to believe. Nevertheless he still did not answer the questions.
In the meantime, Ben Leapman had been pestering Dave Yates with phone calls at home on Friday evening, trying to stand up a story that I had behaved illegally by registering under a nom de plume. Mr. Yates sent Leapman away with a flea in his ear and wrote to me yesterday saying that he is
happy to confirm to anyone who is interested that your dealings with me and my Electoral Registration officers have been in complete good faith on all occasions.
Finally, after several more e-mails and a deadline, I received a letter this morning from Mr. Scriven, who finally assured me that he did not disclose the information. He suggests that it could have been released because people had put in freedom of information requests to the council and got hold of the e-mails that way. I have checked with the council, and no such information request was made. I therefore have to rely on The Sunday Telegraph to tell me whether Ben Leapman is now in possession of my private home address, which is quite properly anonymously registered, irrespective of whether the e-mail correspondence was supplied to him by Terry Scriven, phantom FOI requesters, Father Christmas or little green men from Mars.
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