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7 Oct 2008 : Column 20WH—continued

On a couple of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, we will, of course, consider data protection—I will undertake to do so tomorrow. We will also consider the issue of trying to get more local information. I will raise that matter and look into it for him. We have a close relationship with the Department for Children, Schools and Families and
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I think my hon. Friend would agree with that in relation to some of the points I have made. I accept that there is an issue regarding data and I will look into that for my hon. Friend. If it is helpful, I will write to him and copy that correspondence to other hon. Members who have taken part in this debate.

The hon. Member for Castle Point made some interesting points. I cannot give him a commitment to fund his voluntary group, but such groups are tremendously important. The work that many faith organisations, churches, mosques and so on do across the country is vital. Sometimes the voluntary sector can reach people that the statutory agencies cannot get to. I commend the work of Mr. Hatter and his colleague. Indeed, I commend the work of all the people who work in the voluntary sector in relation to this issue, both in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in constituencies across the country.

Bob Spink: The Minister mentioned the quality of education. We know that the target youngsters, to whom we want to get the message across, are not very receptive. They are going through hormonal and attitudinal changes during the difficult teenage years when they grow up and we all understand that. Teachers and parents are often not as effective in getting the message across to that group of children as they could be. Mr. Hatter is probably not a reformed drug user, but I know a reformed drug user who had to make the decision either to die or to change his life. He now teaches and speaks to children about his experiences and is extremely effective in getting his message across. The children listen to him because he has been there and he can tell them what it is really like. Is there any way in which we can encourage more people who have been rehabilitated to teach our children about this issue?

Mr. Coaker: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. The problem of drugs can be more effectively dealt with by people who have been on the other side of the fence, as it were—and that is the case in relation to a range of social problems, not just substance misuse. It is important to remember that.

On the points about prisons that the hon. Gentleman and a number of other hon. Members made, we are increasing the amount of money spent on prison education during the next three years by £70 million. That is a considerable and welcomed increase in investment.

On the points raised by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), I have talked about the balance between early intervention, education and enforcement, but it is not a matter of making a choice between those; we need to consider a menu of options. A health decision needs to be made about what is most appropriate for an individual.

On national tackling drugs week, as with all the work we do, we are continually evaluating what is effective and what works best. The hon. Gentleman will know that the research project Blueprint is looking into the effectiveness of drugs education and he might be interested to know that we expect to publish those findings in the next month. That research will be helpful.

We greatly value the advice that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs gives the Government, but if the hon. Gentleman was in my place and was the Minister with responsibility for the issue he would, in
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the end, with his colleagues in Government, be charged with the responsibility of making a decision. We get advice—all Governments get advice all the time—but in the end we have to make the decision. The hon. Member for Hornchurch was right about the advice that we received from the ACMD, but we received other advice, not least from the police and service users themselves who said other things. We reflected on and balanced that advice, and in the end made the decision that we have.

The hon. Gentleman asked for an update on cannabis. In the near future, we will introduce legislation on cannabis and we are trying to ensure that the reclassification takes place as quickly as possible. We hope that legislation—a statutory instrument—will be introduced in due course and in the not too distant future.

We are considering the status of head shops and, if necessary, will introduce legislation on that. I absolutely agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. I am told that, legally, action is difficult, but we are considering the matter to try to find a way forward. We have funded police guidance and have considered the policing of head shops. Work is ongoing in that respect.

I think I have dealt with most of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, apart from those relating to the lack of information. Sometimes there has been an issue concerning a lack of information and how the information about the help available gets to people. We need to ensure that we tackle that. In some areas that is not a problem, but in others it is. We are trying to ensure that information is made available to people across the country and where it is needed, so that they can access the necessary help and treatment.

The involvement of parents is clearly crucial to dealing with drugs. I would like to dispel one myth—again, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North taught me this. There is an issue with parents who simply do not care and we need to take action on that, but there is also an issue with parents who care very much, but who sometimes themselves struggle to know what they should be doing with their children. We need to ensure that we recognise their needs and help those parents too.

On the national picture, the principles adopted in Nottingham that have been outlined by my hon. Friend in the excellent debate he has initiated are very much the principles that we want to adopt nationally. Let me put the matter in context: overall drug use by people in England and Wales, including by young people, has fallen to its lowest level since the British crime survey began measurement of self-reported drug misuse. The number of people in contact with drug treatment has increased by 130 per cent. and since the start of the drug intervention programme, acquisitive crime has fallen by 22 per cent. There are, no doubt, issues that we have to discuss, but changes and improvements are being made.

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): Order. We now come to the debate on the regional spatial strategy for the south-west, and obviously there is a lot of interest in the debate from hon. Members. Some have indicated to me in advance that they would like to participate, and I will call them first.

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Regional Spatial Strategy (South West)

11 am

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The regional spatial strategy for the south-west is an issue of prime importance for not only my constituents but those of many hon. Members here today, who I suspect were brought here by the title of the debate, rather than the prospect of my oratory—[Hon. Members: “No!”]—although I am open to correction on that point.

We discussed the draft RSS for the south-west in this very Chamber in January, and the previous but one Housing Minister, who is now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, assured us that the Secretary of State’s comments on the panel’s report would be available in the spring. We anticipated that that would perhaps be around Easter and that there would then be three months of rigorous parliamentary scrutiny of this fundamental and very detailed document, but the weeks and months went by and “spring” turned out to be 22 July. In other words, the Secretary of State’s conclusions were issued to us on the final day on which the House sat, and a 13-week consultation period commenced with 11 weeks of parliamentary recess. I put it to the Minister that that does not show respect for the parliamentary process.

Today’s debate could provide the only opportunity that all hon. Members from the south-west have to express their views in Parliament on the RSS. Although many of the issues are matters for our colleagues in local government, there are clearly issues of regional and national strategic importance that we, as representatives of our communities, should be able to speak our minds about, but the Government have made that exceptionally difficult for us. Were it not for the generosity of Mr. Speaker, we would not even be having this debate today. That is totally unacceptable.

That sums up the problem with the RSS: it is incredibly top-down. Earlier this year, the Department for Communities and Local Government produced a report called—I ask hon. Members please not to laugh—“Communities in control: real people, real power”. If we had read out that title at any of the five public meetings I have had on the issue in my constituency, there would have been a hollow laugh, because there is no sense that real people have real power in this process. It is an entirely top-down process.

There is a consultation. We are approaching the end of it. To respond on the official form in the official language, people can go to the website. I have been encouraging many of my constituents to go to the website to say what they think. One of them said:

Government office for the south-west—

A second constituent said:

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I do not suppose for a second that this is deliberate, but it is exceptionally difficult to use the online process. I registered myself this morning. I had a look online and managed to register, but the barriers to people registering their comments are enormous, which is part of the problem.

The issue is not just the technology. Another constituent said:

That is from an extremely sophisticated constituent of mine who gives me very erudite comment on policy issues and who has just given up because the process is too difficult, so how valid will the consultation be?

I had a look on the website this morning to see how many people had commented on what I call my area, which is known poetically as housing market area 1. It used to be called Avon; it is now the west of England. Out of a population of more than 1 million people, a grand total of 18 people have registered comments, the most recent of which was on 25 September. One of my constituents, Ron Morton, who chairs the Shortwood green belt campaign, rang the Government office for the south-west and asked, “Why are there no more comments since 25 September?” He was told that the official consultation website is not currently being updated with participant submissions, because “Gary is on holiday.” [Laughter.] There is a serious point here. He has asked me to put to the Minister the following question: can the Minister extend the consultation period, this time by a period at least equal to Gary’s holiday, because given the crucial timing of Gary’s absence, the backlog of comments on his return is likely to be substantial?

We could have a process whereby nobody saw anybody else’s comments, but we do not have that. We have a process that should allow us to see what other people have said—but we cannot, because the website has not been updated for weeks. I say, “Either do it properly or don’t do it at all, but don’t faff around.” The entire process has been described as a Whitehall farce, and I have to agree. If we want people to respond, we should make it easy and make it doable, instead of putting all those barriers in their way.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Would he add that people are not entirely sure what they are being consulted about? Is it the original proposals? Is it the panel recommendations? Is it what the Secretary of State has said? I have spoken to very senior people involved in the process and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they do not know what is going on.

Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Let me give an example from my own constituency. The draft RSS that came from the regional assembly had no specific proposals at all for the Yate and Chipping Sodbury area. The panel talked about 5,000 houses in that area. Yate town council asked to give evidence to the panel and was refused, but at the end of the process a big proposal was made for its area, on which it could not feed in because it did not know it was coming. We
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cannot comment on that. We had a debate in January, and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) secured a debate on the issue subsequently. In that debate, this Minister said that he could not respond at that point, which was in the spring, because the process was quasi-judicial and so he could not comment. He could not comment on the panel. Now we have the revisions—in the Yate case, we are talking about a figure of 3,000, not 5,000. Do we agree that 5,000 down to 3,000 is good news, or do we say that 3,000 is wrong because the panel was wrong? Are we allowed to comment on that, because we are commenting on the proposed changes, not the number that it first thought of? It is a complete farce. Nobody knows the answer to that question.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a very powerful, amusing and interesting speech, which we are looking forward to hearing more of; I will not take up too much of his time. Has he any idea of the cost to the taxpayer of this farce? Should the Government not come clean with the country and say that they will abandon the whole regional spatial strategy? I am not sure whether the spatial strategy is on planet Earth or somewhere else in the stratosphere.

Steve Webb: Yes, I suppose we might say it is more of an outer spatial strategy. I have no problem with thinking strategically at regional level, provided that the process is democratic, engages people and starts with local communities, rather than being imposed from on high. That is my principal objection. The strategy needs to be regional, not national, but what have the Government done between the panel report and the Secretary of State’s version? They have stripped out some of the bits that make it different. The south-west wanted to go further and faster on renewable energy. That has been taken out. The south-west wanted to go further and faster on sustainable building. That has been taken out. Is this a regional strategy, or is it a national strategy imposed on the region? The regional assembly put it like this:

one would think that was a statement of the blindingly obvious—

I hope that the Minister will respond to our comments and explain why some of the regional distinctiveness has been taken out of the document. What is the point of asking the region to come up with a document and then saying, “Oh, sorry, you can’t do different things in your region from other regions”? That does not make sense.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that that raises fundamental questions about the Government’s definition of consultation? Is it simply an evidence-gathering session that can be ignored if it goes counter to their views, or is it genuinely a process whereby the views of local areas can feed into shaping the overall process?

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend is right. We have held five public meetings in my constituency about the issue, and 700-plus people have come to them. At the start of every one, I have had to say, “I know what you’re
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thinking—responding to a consultation is a waste of time because nobody is listening.” I hope that the Minister will assure us that the comments that we make today and that go on the website do have a chance of changing something. If he simply comes up with 3 million, or whatever the number is, and just tells us all to get on with it, I wonder whether we would be able to change anything. Frankly, however, if we were all to give up, it would be a recipe for cynicism. That is why I have been determined to fight it.

I shall focus on the specific issue of housing numbers. The document covers much more, but that is the principal concern. I considered what the last but one Housing Minister, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said in response to our debate in January. If I were to summarise her 10-minute speech, it would be, “You are all a bunch of nimbys: go away.” That, essentially, was the line she took. That, however, may be in the Minister’s draft speech, so I shall suggest a slightly more refined version.

We are not saying—I am not saying—no to more houses. South Gloucestershire is not an area of nimbys: over the past 20 years, it has taken 27,000 extra houses, including the biggest housing estate in Europe—Bradley Stoke. In the used currency, we are now being asked for another four Bradley Stokes. That is on top of what we already have.

In 2006, the then all-party cabinet of South Gloucestershire council asked, “What do we need? What can we cope with? What is sustainable? What will the infrastructure bear?” The council came up with 21,000 for the next 20 years. It was not nought. The council was not denying the need for affordable housing.

If the Minister’s officials have been busy, they will know that twice in this Chamber I have demanded more affordable housing to meet local needs in South Gloucestershire. It is not no to new housing; it is yes to sustainable, affordable housing to meet local needs. However, what is proposed goes way beyond that. South Gloucestershire council said yes to 21,000, on top of the 27,000 over the previous 20 years. The draft regional spatial strategy agreed by the regional assembly came up with 23,000, which encroached on the green belt. We objected to that, but it was in the same ballpark. The panel suggested 30,800; and the Secretary of State said 32,800, which was half as many again. The issue is the margin between what the local people believe is sustainable—a number that would meet local needs—and a vast extra development.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I reassure him that the point he makes about his constituents not being nimbys is echoed on the other side of the Bristol in my area of north Somerset. I see my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), in his seat; I am sure that he will make the same point. No one locally is arguing for no extra houses. The problem is that the houses being foisted on us are above what is sustainable, above what local people will sign up to, and far in advance of what local infrastructure, local transport and local community services will stand.

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