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18 Dec 2008 : Column 1277
1.56 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I will try to abide by your hint, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Let me start by welcoming the Deputy Leader of the House, who will wind up one of these Adjournment debates for the first time. He has been a regular attendee in the House on many occasions and has always taken part assiduously in House business and House matters. He brings to his office an understanding of the Chamber that perhaps some of his predecessors did not have. I look forward to hearing him wind up the debate and to his taking up seriously the matters that we raise.

I want to comment on a few issues that have been prominent in my postbag over the past few months, including Post Office card accounts. The Government have now made a decision on that, which I welcome. However, what is unacceptable is the vast amount of time that it took them to take that decision and the uncertainty that it led to in the whole post office system. We are to have a further debate next year on the whole question of Royal Mail, which will be very controversial for some Members. Given how post offices have served rural communities so well, I regret the amount of time that the Government took to reach a decision. That has added to the problem of the survival of post offices as people take decisions on whether to buy them.

In a similar vein, many people, particularly in rural areas, are concerned about the Government’s handling of the issue of dispensing from GP practices. The Government announced a decision on Thursday, but the consultation process closed only a few weeks ago. One wonders why there was such a consultation process. I suspect that the Government realised that they were getting themselves into exactly the same kind of mess with the issue of pharmacies and GP dispensing as they did with post offices. I hope that following that consultation some recommendations are taken on board about allowing GP practices to offer wider services from the pharmacies that they operate in their surgeries. That would be an addition to the rural practices that would be welcomed by GPs and by patients who have to use those practices.

I have often mentioned in these Adjournment debates the quarry on Longstone Edge. That matter is expected to go to the High Court some time early in the new year. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received me in a meeting on that issue, which I welcome. He has considered it in great detail and has taken many measures which, I hope, will be able to reassure my constituents, depending on the outcome of the High Court decision. I will say no more than that. When one often attacks the Government or says that they are getting things wrong, it is right to say when they are getting something right, and I welcome what the Secretary of State is doing.

I want to consider rural broadband because broadband is vital to our country. Although we have almost 100 per cent. coverage, a significant proportion of UK households still suffer from an unreliable connection and poor connection speeds. Poorly served households tend to be in rural areas, where many share an exchange, and are further away from it. A digital divide is developing, and there is a broadband divide between urban areas, which have a much faster service, and rural areas. If there are to be rural jobs and if companies are to prosper in rural areas, broadband is vital because it is essential to the operation of a business.

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I want to express a great concern. When we are informed that things will happen, especially by the Prime Minister, they should happen. On 3 December, the Prime Minister stated:

Many of us are used to the Prime Minister, so some people shouted, “Which Christmas?”

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): It was the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McLoughlin: The Deputy Leader of the House is correct—it was me. The Prime Minister said:

It is disgraceful that that promise—and the Prime Minister’s word—has not been kept. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give us the genuine reason for that. Last week, the Leader of the House said that it was a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. It must be taking a long time to dot i’s and cross t’s if we must wait nearly four weeks for the statement. In all seriousness, not fulfilling a commitment made at the Dispatch Box to provide a statement before Christmas is a disgraceful way in which to treat the House.

My constituency is large and rural, and bovine tuberculosis is a big issue for agriculture. It costs this country a fortune—it is estimated to have cost between £600 million and £800 million in the past 10 years. The current policy is failing: 200,000 cattle have been slaughtered, yet the incidence of bovine TB doubles every four and a half years. A comprehensive package of measures is needed to tackle cattle transmission and the impact on the countryside. It is worth remembering not only that infected badgers are responsible for the majority of TB breakdowns in cattle, but that they suffer a slow and painful death. It is a serious animal welfare issue and the Government have not dealt with it. I appreciate that there are tough decisions to make, but we cannot continue with the current increases in TB—it costs the country a huge amount of money, which is basically wasted. I want the Government to take that on board.

The Derbyshire building society has proudly talked about its independence as a building society owned by its members for many years. It was therefore a great shock to read in The Sunday Times that the Nationwide was about to take it over. I have subsequently received several letters about the way in which that was done. I have written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, especially about the position of the Derbyshire building society, which sold its Isle of Man subsidiary, Derbyshire Offshore, to the Kaupthing bank in 2007. Many people have lost a huge amount of money and grave uncertainty remains about whether they will be compensated. To what extent did the Financial Services Authority clear the Derbyshire building society’s actions when it sold off its offshore service? Were those who had investments in the offshore service properly briefed about the implications? I wrote to the Chancellor in November, but I have yet to receive a response. I realise that it is a complicated subject, but my constituents who have lost huge amounts of money deserve some explanation of what the Government are doing about the matter.

One aspect of the current economic climate that greatly worries me is the treatment of all the people who have done the right thing for a long time and saved
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money for their retirement. When they hear about interest rates decreasing, possibly below the current 3 per cent., as far as the Bank of England is concerned, it is ridiculous for the Government to tell them that they are getting a 10 per cent. return on their savings. The Government cannot continue to say that—they must revise the figure. Ten per cent. was generous even before we hit the current economic climate. We owe a special debt to people who have saved for a long time for their retirement and to have the little extras. If we do not acknowledge that, the House and the Government convey the message that those who save are wasting their time, because they get no reward. I hope that the Government will tackle that serious problem as soon as possible.

There are several other issues, which affect my constituency, that I could raise. However, bearing in mind what you asked hon. Members to do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall simply take the opportunity to thank all House of Commons staff who have helped me so much with my responsibilities in the House throughout the year. I hope that they have a merry Christmas and a contented new year.

2.6 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who made several common-sense points about a wide range of issues. As the Member of Parliament who represents the most rural Labour constituency in England, I agree with him especially about the importance of GP pharmacies. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is a good Yorkshire saying, which applies in that case. I also agree with him about rural broadband. In North Yorkshire, we are lucky to have a company called Nynet, which North Yorkshire county council backs, that helps with the position.

I want to consider four issues, which have some connection with the Christmas season. I want to say a few words about public transport over the Christmas period. Many hon. Members will shortly make their way back to their constituencies by train to celebrate Christmas. Many of us have already bought our copy of the Christmas Radio Times, and I want to talk about a television-related issue. Sport is part of the Christmas season and I am proudly wearing my Bradford City tie and looking forward to the Boxing day fixture against Lincoln. I have one sport-related matter to mention. Of course, as chairman of the all-party beer group, I urge all hon. Members to pay a professional or personal visit to a pub during the Christmas season. I am sure many of us will do that.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to early-day motion 328, which I tabled about public transport in the United Kingdom over the Christmas holidays. In the past six or seven years, a revolution has taken place in our major cities in buses running on Boxing day. Buses—and, indeed, the underground—have run in London on Boxing day for many years. However, a few years ago, almost no other buses in England ran on that day. West midlands passenger transport authority revolutionised its provision of buses on Boxing day six or seven years ago. It started an experiment, initially with a subsidy, but now the buses are run on a commercial basis as people travel to sporting fixtures, go to the shops—the Government are
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currently encouraging retail spending—or visit family and friends. That practice has spread to all passenger transport authorities in England—they are all running some buses this year, and that is vital.

However, apart from the Heathrow Express, the Gatwick Express and one or two services in Scotland, there are almost no trains for 58 hours. That does not happen in the rest of Europe, where at least a Sunday service runs the day after Christmas. Many of us will have the pleasure of the company of relatives over the Christmas period, but 58 hours can be quite a long time in some cases. More seriously, some people cannot go home for Christmas because they have to be at work on 27 December, and they know that they cannot get back in time. They might lose their job if they cannot get back.

The Government need to look into whether Network Rail and the train operating companies could provide some services on Boxing day. Contradictory arguments are put forward against that proposal. Some Ministers have said that everyone deserves a good period of time off, but they also point to the engineering works being carried out over that time. There is a certain contradiction in those arguments. I have spoken to representatives of TransPennine Express, who say that the most popular day of the year at Manchester airport is Boxing day, yet there are no trains to Manchester airport on that day. Why should Manchester be different from Gatwick? The company is willing to run trains on Boxing day on an experimental basis from York—perhaps even from Selby—through Leeds to Manchester airport. That would help the retail sector and the sporting fixtures as well as the airport. Ministers really need to take an interest in this important matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not know what your favourite television programme will be over the festive period, but, once the festive period is over, in January, the public service broadcasting review will be published by Ofcom. This could markedly change the nature of future Christmases on television. I want to highlight the role of ITV in this regard. ITV is trying to get rid of many of its public service obligations. Clearly, the value of ITV licences will come down in the coming years, as we approach the digital switchover.

Having commended one early-day motion tabled in my name, I should now like to commend another. Early-day motion 2283 relates to regional production quotas for ITV, and there are still a few hours left before the Christmas recess in which Members may sign it. It examines the important issue of ITV’s current obligation to spend 50 per cent. of its total programme spend outside the M25. ITV is trying to bring that down to 35 per cent. However, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport observed at the time of the last public service broadcasting review that the 50 per cent. out-of-London production quota was non-negotiable. It was fixed at that level, partly as compensation for ITV reducing its regional news coverage. It is important, particularly for Leeds and Manchester, that ITV should continue to make a large number of its programmes there. Surely it is cheaper to make programmes in the north of England than in the capital city. It would be the final victory of Carlton over Granada—those two companies merged a few years ago—if the regional production quota were decreased. A relatively small amount of money is involved in the out-of-London production quota: Ofcom estimates the cost at £5 million.

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On a wider point, I hope that, when the regulator produces the public service broadcasting review, some obligations on ITV will be retained. Even when we reach the digital switchover in 2013, ITV’s use of the spectrum and its position on the electronic programme guide will still be worth about £45 million to ITV. Out-of-London production costs ITV £5 million, national news costs it £5 million, current affairs costs it £7 million, and original British production costs it £8 million, and all those things should remain for future British television programmes and British Christmases.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I know that you are a cricket fan, but I do not know whether you are a racing fan. There will be many race meetings on Boxing day and, at the moment, the BBC and Channel 4 are renegotiating their television contracts for 2010 and beyond. The BBC is threatening to halve its coverage of racing, and I think that that would be a great pity. For many of the people who watch its racing coverage, it is the mainstay of their BBC viewing, and 75 per cent. of racing fans who watch it on TV come from the social classes C2, D and E. I hope that this will not be the last year that the BBC shows the Welsh grand national. I think that it is on 27 December, and it is one of the few bits of live sport on terrestrial television over Christmas. I hope that the BBC will maintain its current commitment to racing in future contracts.

Philip Davies: May I commend to the hon. Gentleman the article on this very subject in the Racing Post by Peter O’Sullevan? He is not just a racing great; he is a BBC great as well. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to support the argument that the BBC should not cut its racing coverage.

Mr. Grogan: As always, the hon. Gentleman gives me a good tip; he is particularly good at doing that. He has also now given me a suggestion for my Christmas reading, which I will certainly follow up.

Finally, a word on pubs. The all-party parliamentary group on beer has set itself a considerable task for next year: we want to make the debate about the future of community pubs as central to the politics of 2009 as the debate on post offices was in 2008. Perhaps 10 per cent. of pubs—that is, about 5,000 of them—will be threatened with closure next year. The pubs in many villages and suburbs are the centre of the community. They are the place where people go to celebrate, to complain about life, to mourn and to seek friendship. They are a great feature of British life.

Keith Vaz: Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the reason why pubs are threatened with closure is that supermarkets are selling alcohol at very low prices? Do we not need a floor price to enable other institutions such as pubs and clubs to compete equally and fairly?

Mr. Grogan: I have always been an assiduous reader of the Select Committee reports that my right hon. Friend produces. He has taken the words right out of my mouth: the essential problem for British pubs is the widening differential between prices in pubs and in the off trade. When I was a young man, the difference was about three times—that is, it was three times more expensive to buy a pint in a pub as it was to buy the equivalent amount of beer in a supermarket. Now, the margin is eight times, and widening.

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The Scottish Government are suggesting that a minimum price be introduced next year, and it will be interesting to see what impact that has on the debate in the rest of the United Kingdom. There are other routes that could be explored as well. In Europe, the different regulations relating to VAT are once again being examined, and it is possible that regulations could be passed allowing a lower rate of duty on draught beer, which would be another way of allowing the pubs to compete more favourably. I hope and expect that this will be an important issue for Parliament in the coming year.

No preview of Parliament in 2009 would be complete without a little reflection on the impact of President-elect Barack Obama on world and British politics, and he also has a connection with British pubs. He visited a British pub in 1996 while on a stag weekend, so he has some experience of them. Furthermore, in Adam Boulton’s reflections on the Blair and Brown years, he reflects that our own Prime Minister was more comfortable in a pub environment than his predecessor. He spotted him in the Marquis of Granby, and said that the Prime Minister had apparently visited the pub of his own free will. So, having outlined the task for the all-party parliamentary group on beer, I shall finish by saying that when the new President visits these shores—in April, I think—I very much hope that our Prime Minister will invite him to a British pub, perhaps the Marquis of Granby, for at least one pint of British beer.

2.18 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): First, I should like to talk about the difficulty that local councils face in providing evidence to support planning decisions at the appeal stage. I want to highlight the inadequacy of planning inspectorate investigations based on these cases. The Isle of Wight councillor for Sandown South, Ian Ward, has drawn my attention to a case in my constituency. A council planning decision relating to No. 16, Grafton street, Sandown had been partly overturned at appeal by the planning inspectorate. A landlord had, without permission, changed the use of a residential home for the elderly into a house in multiple occupation. The council put out an enforcement order against the landlord, preventing him from doing this. The landlord appealed against the council decision and the planning inspectorate launched an investigation.

The premises, the inspector heard, had been linked to noise, public order offences and at least one assault. The inspector seemed not to have established whether the incidents resulted in any convictions, or even just their outcome—hardly a thorough investigation. Furthermore, at the time the landlord bought the premises, it housed 13 residents. At the time of the appeal, the single announced inspection found it housed only six—again, this was not a good way of establishing the facts. Further evidence of disturbances was presented by other neighbours. The inspector decided that

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