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5.27 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Two and a half months ago, a man was stabbed to death at the end of my street. Michael Mann, who was in his early 40s, was killed by a single stab wound in front of his partner, Natasha, and their six-month-old baby, leaving a bewildered family to try to pick up the pieces. The trauma of that experience was exacerbated considerably by the complete incompetence of Natasha’s housing association, PCHA, which refused to take her request for rehousing seriously, despite the fact that it was her neighbours from an adjacent flat who were arrested for the murder and then bailed. Sadly, that is an all too common experience.

Michael Mann’s murder brought to a close a period of relative calm in Brent. We had begun to think that we had turned a corner after several years of high-profile gun and knife crime fatalities. The most famous and shocking was the killing of the child Toni-Ann Byfield in 2003. It is seared in my memory because she was murdered just days before the by-election in Brent, East, and the front pages of the newspapers that told the story of my victory also carried photographs of children carrying candles in a vigil outside the house in which she was killed.

Things had seemed a little better until May this year, when three people were killed in the space of just a week. The toll now stands at two fatal gun attacks and two fatal stabbings. The headlines have all been about young people and gangs, but the fatalities in Brent this year have been adults, mostly killed by other adults, with causes ranging from domestic violence to neighbour disputes. It is a complex picture and we need to be careful not to make too great a generalisation about the causes. There is no doubt that the fatalities of adults have masked many other incidents involving young people, which are often not reported to the police because of fear or because of a lack of belief in the police’s ability to tackle the problem.

Policy Exchange’s recent report, “Going Ballistic”, said that only one in four young offenders thought that the police could protect them from crime. More shockingly, two thirds of those who thought that the police could not protect them had previously been threatened with a knife, so there is often a cycle. Perhaps the greatest challenge in tackling knife crime is tackling the fear that everybody else is carrying a knife. It is important to put on the record that a recent random search of 300 young people at a school in Brent found that none of those children was carrying a knife. The concern about knife crime, which is rightly expressed, often fuels that fear in young people and means that they think that they will
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be safe only if they all carry a knife. There is a desperate need to tackle that problem, perhaps with better and closer relationships on a ward level between community police and young people.

Research on gun crime in Brent has turned up a similarly complex picture. The council commissioned research that was published in 2005, and is going on to commission further work that looks at the causes of gun crime in Brent. The 2005 research contradicted many of the stereotypes. It found that gun crime was not just a problem of one ethnic group against another, and neither was it about drugs. It is not necessarily directly related to gangs. We have had gang problems in Brent, but the research shows that the incidence of gun crime is not always related to gang crime.

As Policy Exchange found, the distinction between victims and offenders is often blurred. The Brent study found that all those people who offended with guns have been victims of crime. Most had been victims of gun crime and half had had family or friends who were directly affected. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the research and the most common feature between offenders was a hyper-material culture and attachment to overt wealth. There is a bit of a moral parable about what happens when someone values things that they can see rather than things that are about them as an individual. When that is coupled with a fear of violence, it is easy to see how people can get into a cycle where life is cheap.

We have many ongoing projects in Brent that work through the umbrella project, Not Another Drop. I want to highlight one particular project, which targets young people who are thought to be at risk of or on the cusp of being involved in serious violence. It is called In-volve RAW and focuses on young people in the south Kilburn area of my constituency and in Harlesden and Stonebridge in neighbouring areas, as well as the Harrow road corridor that runs between those two areas. It focuses on raising self-esteem and trying to tackle the problem caused when people’s sense of value is about overt wealth rather than themselves. The project tries to reverse negative self-images and, in particular, tries to help young people to deal with anger and a sense of hopelessness. It is an interesting project that I hope that the Government will look at carefully and consider replicating in other areas.

Finally, I want to mention the fact that that project, along with many other projects in Brent, suffers from a lack of consistent and stable funding. It is difficult for the council and other community organisations to plan the funding of good projects in Brent when initiatives and priorities constantly change. I have one plea for the Government: will they consider a more stable way of funding this difficult work with difficult communities, who need long-term work in order to build up trust?

5.33 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am mindful of the time constraints, so I shall be brief. I want to bring to the attention of the House an important issue concerning the practical flaws in the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and in particular in how it operates in relation to failing schools. I voted for the
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Bill two years ago and feel predisposed to make comments, which are not party political in nature, on it. I invite the House and the Deputy Leader of the House, through her Ministers, to review what actions are needed to ensure that the provisions laid down to deal with failing schools can be used with greater alacrity.

My concern is for some of my constituents’ children who have been adversely affected as a consequence of an ineffectual head teacher, a weak and compliant governing body and a local education authority that was willing to act but was circumscribed by legislation. The school to which I refer is St. John Fisher school, a Roman Catholic voluntary secondary school in Peterborough. It is a mixed school of 744 pupils and, until quite recently, it was one of the highest performing schools in the Peterborough local education authority area. The school operates within the Roman Catholic diocese of East Anglia and, in particular, within the diocesan board of education.

From 1999 until 17 July this year, the school’s head was Mary Mihovilovic. She resigned last week for personal reasons, and this week signed a compromise agreement. Significant problems were identified at the school, particularly in regard to the management of the school and the quality of the education, as long ago as 2004, when a warning notice was issued by the local education authority as a result of a serious breakdown in the way the school was managed and governed, which was seen as likely to prejudice future standards of performance.

The initial warning in that year was subsequently rescinded. It was clear, however, that things were not improving. In the past four years, results have plummeted, the school has had difficulty in attracting and retaining newly qualified teachers, and the head teacher was the only head teacher in the country who refused to take part in the excellence clusters programme. Trade unions surveyed the staff, and the results that were presented to the governing body showed a culture of centralised control, bullying and intimidation. This was routinely dismissed by the governing body as an attack on the head.

The senior management team refused to communicate with outside bodies such as the diocesan board, the LEA and Cambridgeshire constabulary. “Difficult” governors were removed, and teachers who would not co-operate with the head were asked to resign or made redundant. There were questions about the appropriateness of having a personal friend of the head as the chair of the governors. It has emerged only in the last few months that the governing body actually voted for a £20,000 fund for legal fees to enable the head to send legal letters to people who fell foul of her, including some on the LEA and the diocesan board.

Matters reached a head in late 2007, when the governing body removed an LEA governor, Councillor Stephen Goldspink—who also happened to be the deputy leader of the city council, and who was attending an extraordinary meeting of Peterborough city council at the time—for having the temerity to complain about the inconvenience to his constituents of inconsiderate parking by some parents at the school.

This year, it has been confirmed that the school is now on the infamous list of 638 failing schools, having fallen below the target floor. By 27 February this year, Peterborough city council had issued a warning notice to the school on the basis of pupil bullying, declining
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standards, the effectiveness and function of the governing body, staffing issues and a lack of willingness to engage with external partners and stakeholders. A section 8 inspection by Ofsted in April resulted in one of the worst inspection reports for any secondary school in the Peterborough local education authority area, the school being rated inadequate in 19 out of 26 categories. On 5 June 2008, the school was put into special measures under section 13 of the Education Act 2005.

The key question now is how will the present legislation, Ofsted and the Department for Children, Schools and Families be able to deal with a rogue governing body and a head teacher who refused to acknowledge or engage with statutory bodies, and who used delay, obfuscation and the appeal process for more than six months, which is more than half the school year? That is the problem that we face. Lessons need to be learned, particularly in regard to the role of the diocesan board, which had no statutory powers to intervene, and to the process of appeals against the legislation.

Thankfully, the school now has a new head, Mr. Sean Hayes, formerly the head of St. Alban’s school in Ipswich, and a new interim independent executive board. They are focusing on discipline and teaching standards and on improving poor results. I wish them well, but we must remember that some of the most deprived children in my constituency have lost a vital year in their education.

I ask Ministers to ensure that such a situation could not and should not happen again. I implore the Deputy Leader of the House, perhaps in her remarks at the end of the debate, to give an undertaking to that effect.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP) rose—

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I call Mr. Shailesh Vara.

5.41 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and may I also thank all the—

Bob Spink: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it possible to find a way either to extend the debate, or reduce the amount of Front-Bench time in what is essentially a Back-Bench debate? That would enable Back Benchers who have sat here all day to deliver their speeches, even though they might have only a few minutes to make their—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of this House and he knows exactly how we operate. It is unfortunate that people who have been here all day sometimes do not get called, but there is nothing that the Chair can do about it other than to exhort Members to take a little less time when they speak. Now we are only taking time out of what remains. I call Shailesh Vara.

Mr. Vara: Thank you again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and may I take this opportunity to thank everyone who was able to contribute to this end-of-term debate? As always, a number of issues were covered, ranging from the local to the international.

22 July 2008 : Column 746

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) made a very conscientious speech, and not for the first time he spoke about the local transport situation affecting his constituents. Resolving those problems will not be easy, but I certainly wish him well in all his efforts.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoke for most if not all hon. Members when he rightly welcomed the moves being taken towards achieving some sort of peace settlement in Zimbabwe. However, given President Mugabe’s record in these matters, we must recognise that these are only talks. We must maintain the pressure on Mugabe and his regime, as we will be able to have a sense of rejoicing only when an actual result has been achieved. I should also like to take this opportunity to welcome the involvement of South Africa’s President Mbeki, who I very much hope will use his considerable influence in other parts of Africa.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) gave a very knowledgeable speech, in which he raised some issues concerning United Utilities. He said that he wrote to United Utilities three times before he got a reply, and that he is still waiting for a reply from the Minister. However, if the past record of ministerial responses is anything to go by, even when he gets a reply from the Minister he will probably need a lot more than three supplementary letters before he gets a substantive response.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) gave a very serious speech about the data stored by paedophiles. He has spoken about the problem before, and he has considerable expertise and knowledge about it. All of us in the House wish him well in his endeavours to ensure greater protection for children and families who are victims of paedophiles.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) spoke up for catering staff at Airedale hospital trust. I very much hope that the decision due to be taken on Thursday is the right one for all concerned.

A number of hon. Members raised the very real issue that affects constituencies around the country: the closure of post offices. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) all described how the closure of local post offices was ripping the very heart out of their communities. I think that we all share their concerns—I certainly do, as I was informed only some two weeks ago that five post offices in my constituency were to be closed.

On the theme of post offices, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) gave a heartfelt speech about the Post Office card account. Like him, we have all received hundreds if not thousands of letters from constituents urging that the Post Office card account be retained, and that demonstrates the enormous strength of feeling among the public on this issue.

The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) gave a typically eloquent speech. He talked about a consultation on alcohol and its relation to crime; I look forward to its conclusions. I hope that the Government will take on board the good points raised in the consultation, although their usual practice is to kick matters into the long grass by announcing another review.

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Few Members present will not have had large numbers of constituents raise tax credit issues with them. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) spoke for many of us when he highlighted the problems of overpayment, and the problems with the process of recovery that follows.

The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) gave an appropriate speech, given recent sport activities. During the recess, he may well receive hundreds of letters from cricket fans who welcome his plea that cricket be made available on free-to-air TV.

About midway through the debate, we heard a light-hearted, humorous speech by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson); it came at just the right time. However, he had a serious message to convey about the A11. I am sure that the changes that he proposed will not easily be agreed to, but I have no doubt that he will continue to fight for them in his usual way.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised some very serious points about information, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act 2000, on Heathrow airport and BAA. I suspect that the issue will run for a while yet, and that we have not heard the last of it.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) is a veteran of these Adjournment debates. I trust that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on to the relevant Minister in the Department for Transport the hon. Lady’s concern about the concrete surface of the A180, which is being replaced on only one carriageway.

It is vital that when cities and towns consider expansion, they do not overlook the growth of infrastructure. That was rightly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), when he spoke of expansion in his constituency.

On the subject of expansion, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) spoke of the inconsistency of the south-east plan, which threatens the green belt, despite statements having been made by the Prime Minister in the House urging protection of the green belt. My hon. Friend asked the Deputy Leader of the House a simple question about how to square the Prime Minister’s statement with the reality, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give her a reasonable, straightforward answer.

In the past three years, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) has demonstrated how robustly he defends the rights of his constituents, as regards their local hospital. He has fought hard for that hospital, and I have every confidence that he will continue his campaign to save it.

In a succinct speech, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) raised a huge number of points and demonstrated his expertise on health matters. I very much hope that Health Ministers will find time during the recess to consider some of them.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) rightly pointed out the enormous concern felt by businesses and individuals about the great increase in fuel costs. That issue concerns all our constituents, and he was right to raise it today.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), another veteran of these Adjournment debates, mentioned the fact that land-girls, including his mother, will receive medals tomorrow. I am sure that I speak for all of us when I say that we share in celebrating the good news, and we congratulate all of them on their achievements and their medals.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) raised some very serious concerns about his campaign to ensure the secrecy of MPs’ second-home addresses. The whole House will agree that it is to be hoped that there will be no adverse impact, for him or his loved ones, resulting from his campaign.

The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) spoke of the tragedy of gun and knife crime, which affects so many people. I think that we would all agree that we must all work together to try to deal with that scourge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), a constituency neighbour, raised the concerns of the St. John Fisher school—concerns that affect hundreds of children. I hope that there is a concerted effort by all concerned to ensure that there is a satisfactory solution in the near future.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, it only remains for me now to wish you, all the officials and staff of the House, all Members and their staff and the security staff who do so much to look after us a very happy recess and we look forward to seeing everybody safely back in October.

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