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On the involvement of senior police officers in the Met, I hope I am not being too cruel, but what keep coming back to me are the words of Alan Clark when he was referring to the generals in the first world war and the wonderful soldiers in the trenches, because our ordinary police officers risking their lives and well-being
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on the streets of London daily are “lions led by donkeys”. I very much hope that there will be major changes at the top of the Metropolitan police force.

We must address the issue of how the House authorities dealt with this matter. It is clearly highly unsatisfactory that the police were allowed to raid the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford without a warrant and that insufficient questions were asked. I passionately believe that not only must Members of Parliament not be above the law, but we must be treated exactly the same as all our constituents. However, it is important that, in such cases, the House authorities—the Speaker, the Serjeant at Arms, the Clerk and others—satisfy themselves first that there is a case to answer and that any action is not in breach of the long-standing tradition that protects our constituents’ confidentiality in this House.

Clearly, that did not happen in this case and an investigation needs to take place. In his original statement on the day of the state opening, the Speaker rightly agreed with me and tried to set in motion a process to enable such an inquiry. It is shameful and deeply regrettable—I do not believe this was anything to do with the Leader of the House or her deputy, because I think they were leant on by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary—that the motion that was tabled did not set up a Committee in the way that the Speaker wanted and the rest of the House expected.

We all know that, these days, the Standards and Privileges Committee does not have a Government majority, and nor should it. It is equally plain that although a Committee of the House or, for that matter, a departmental Select Committee should reflect the balance of the parties in the House, that should not be the case on something as important as this. That is why when it came to vote for the Committee as set out in the motion, those on the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and nationalist Benches rightly voted against, why so many Labour Members either joined us or abstained and why the majority was so minute.

The second reason for the minute majority was simply that the Committee was not going to meet, except to adjourn immediately after it had appointed a Chair, and that was quite wrong. The Committee should be carrying out this investigation. Where do we go from here? Clearly, the Speaker’s Committee is dead and buried, unless the Government change their mind—I am not holding my breath, and I do not expect the Deputy Leader of the House to say in his winding-up speech that they are going to change their mind. So the only way forward is to refer this matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I hope that that will happen as soon as the House returns, so that the Committee can look into all these matters.

The third aspect to the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford is, of course, ministerial involvement and responsibility. It is abundantly clear that what was leaked to him embarrassed the Government but was not a matter of national security. It is deeply regrettable that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, noisily abetted by among others the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, (Mr. Simon), led a slur, a smear and what, outside this place, would
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clearly be a potential slander against my hon. Friend, suggesting that something much more serious was involved and that a major security breach had taken place.

If that were the case, is it not a little odd that the so-called whistleblower was arrested on one day, but it was not until 13 days later that police actually turned up here and raided my hon. Friend’s office, and arrested him in his constituency? I notice that it has now all been quietly dropped and forgotten, but what a minority of Ministers did was nasty, unpleasant and wrong and I am sure that it embarrassed Labour Members as much as it annoyed us.

On the subject of the whistleblower, let me make it clear that except in the most exceptional circumstances public servants should not leak information to politicians, journalists or anyone else. When it is not a matter of national security, a full internal inquiry should be carried out in the Department and, in a serious case, if the culprit is found, he or she should be dismissed without any compensation. That should have happened in this case. For some reason, it did not, and we ended up with this heavy-handed police action.

I am confused about the Home Secretary’s role in this matter. We have taken advice from the last two Conservative Home Secretaries, my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who are very distinguished. They both said unequivocally that if they had been Home Secretary, they would have expected to be told if a Member of Parliament was to be arrested and his office raided. They said that, by any chance they were not told, heads would have rolled. They have been somewhat backed up by the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), who intervened on the Home Secretary a couple of weeks ago to say that he would not have been so placid if he had been told after the event. Well, all of us who know the right hon. Gentleman know that he is many things, but placid is not one of them. We can just imagine what would have happened if he had been Home Secretary and had learnt about what happened only afterwards.

The Home Secretary’s role is unfortunate. We have to accept, because she is a right hon. Member, that she has told the truth and she did not know. That puts her in a difficult position, because the question is why she did not know. Furthermore, why did she not do anything about it afterwards? Strangely, it appears that the Cabinet Office knew rather more, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office was rather more involved. That raises many interesting questions for the inquiry and, possibly, the Select Committee. Indeed, there will be more than one Select Committee looking at this matter, because the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has suggested that the Public Administration Committee will also inquire into the events.

My second point again involves the Home Secretary who, of all Ministers, has had the worst war in the last few months. She is clearly in great difficulties. Here I link in with the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, who was right to apologise. If Gwyneth Dunwoody had been sitting in her customary seat in the corner, she would have enjoyed and appreciated the apology. Why could not the Home Secretary bring herself to apologise, when being cross-examined earlier this week about why Sir Michael Scholar had been so critical of the release of statistics on knife crime that were incomplete and
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immature? If she had done so, she would have gained huge respect on both sides of the House, because we all make mistakes. I have always found that if people apologise, they are forgiven by every reasonable person.

It is an immensely serious issue. Sir Michael Scholar was appointed by the Government—it was a good appointment and it is right that we should have such a position—as the watchdog on statistics. I am sure that I do not need to remind you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that he is also an ex-permanent secretary at the Home Office. He knows what is going on from back to front. We saw that gentle, rather academic, scholarly face on our television news absolutely furious at how the statistics had been manipulated. We cannot help but feel that again it was not the placid Home Secretary’s direct fault, and so we go back to Downing street and the Cabinet Office.

One can imagine some bright young thing who hopes one day to sit on the Government or Opposition Benches thinking, “Now, the Prime Minister has had this knife crime summit in his diary for a few days. Wouldn’t it be good to give him some really good statistics to show that it has all been sorted out?” That was wrong. It should not have happened and people such as the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary should apologise and ensure that that bright young thing spends a little more time learning the way the world works. What happened was deeply regrettable.

Thirdly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) rightly pointed out, it is a disgrace that we have not had a statement on Equitable Life. I made that point to the Chancellor earlier today, so I shall not dwell on it.

It is desperately important that we continue to have more debates on the economy, particularly when the Minister for the Olympics has made it clear—I think that she is right—that this is the worst recession we have ever known. We need to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer just why it is not the Government’s fault. If the markets have decided, due to the reduction of the pound against the dollar and the euro, they have clearly got it right.

I end by wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all staff here a very happy Christmas—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The right hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

2.56 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I wish to begin by putting on the record the fact that this week marks the 90th anniversary of women being able to vote in a general election, and it is also the 90th anniversary of women being able to stand for Parliament. Seventeen women stood for election on 14 December 1918. Only one was successful, and that was Countess Constance Markievicz, so she never took her seat.

The second woman to be elected, of course, was Viscountess Astor, who was elected in a by-election, but today I want to pay tribute to Margaret Wintringham, who was elected in 1921. She was the third woman to be elected and the second to take her seat, as well as the first Liberal woman and the first British-born woman
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to be elected. She was also the first woman who was actually involved in the suffrage movement to be elected. She represented the Louth constituency, which at the time included the southern section of the current Cleethorpes constituency. I pay tribute to her and all those pioneering women, because without their hard work I would not be able to stand here today and discuss serious issues before we rise for the recess.

First, I want to talk about the death of Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. He was sadly killed in Helmand province on 15 January 2007. His name has now been inscribed on the war memorial in the town of Immingham, where he was born and where his mother still lives. His name joins those of those who died in the first and second world wars.

I want to talk about Mathew today because we have recently had the inquest into his death, and his family have come away none the wiser. Outside Cleethorpes town hall, his mother said that from the day he died, she has not known what happened to him. She does not know why his body was left on the ground. She does not know why he was shot. She does not know who shot him. She hoped to find out from the inquest what happened, and sadly she feels that all those questions remain unanswered. There were discrepancies between the findings of the Royal Navy board of inquiry after Mathew’s death and issues raised at the inquest. There was a great deal of conflicting evidence, and I feel that we owe our troops, and Mathew Ford’s family, much more than that.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will help me to arrange a meeting between Mathew’s mother and Ministers, so that she can raise her concerns about the conduct of the board of inquiry investigation. Such a meeting would also enable her to discuss some of the issues that were not investigated at the subsequent inquest. The details are very distressing, and I shall not go into them today, but I repeat that we owe it to the families of those who lose their lives serving this country to look into such matters.

The next serious issue that I want to raise today concerns the rates paid by companies operating in Britain’s ports, which affects some 700 companies around the UK. In a nutshell, those companies have received demands to pay their business rates backdated to 2005. The sums involved are incredibly large as a result, but the crucial factor is that since 2005 the companies have been paying their rates along with their rents directly to port operators, such as Associated British Ports. That means that they are being asked to pay double, which they believe—I agree with them—is grossly unfair. Some firms have gone under already because of the mess with the rates. The proposed solution is that companies do not pay the increased rates until 2010. That solution is not new—it has been used in the past, with orders being put through this House postponing the immediate implementation of rate revaluations, and I hope that a similar mechanism can be adopted in this instance.

Many hon. Members attended Monday’s very successful lobby on the matter in the House, but I worry for the future of the 700 companies if we do not come up with a solution. I hope that Ministers will meet some of the operators involved, and hon. Members have already lobbied my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. We have also seen the Prime Minister, and at that meeting we stressed the seriousness of the problem
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and the large number of firms that are affected. I want Ministers to look at the real problems that the firms are facing by meeting representatives of some of them directly. I hope that they will also look at the possibility of putting through the House an order that would postpone the increased levy until 2010. To be fair to them, the Government have made some very helpful suggestions, but I fear that they will not be enough to prevent some firms going under.

The next matter that I want to deal with today is more positive—compensation for former distant-water trawlermen who lost their livelihoods as a result of the cod wars. I have brought the matter up in these debates over the years. We have heard a lot about compensation for miners, for example, but a great many people lost their livelihoods after the cod wars.

The Government introduced a compensation scheme in 2000, but a serious loophole in the rules meant that thousands of men did not receive any money—they may have had a break in service of more than 12 weeks that rendered them ineligible to receive compensation. I thank the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, who on Thursday last week announced that a new scheme will be devised in the new year that does not include that serious loophole. As a result, many of my constituents who were never compensated following the loss of their livelihood will receive compensation. It has taken a long time to get to this stage, and talking about former distant-water trawlermen is very much a minority sport in this House. In debates such as this, we can raise important issues for our constituents, which has enabled me to raise this issue and finally have it resolved.

The Secretary of State made an announcement yesterday about some of the measures being introduced following the serious floods. Hull, which is across the River Humber from my constituency, always gets the most attention when we talk about the floods, but that rain that fell on Hull fell just as heavily on the other side of the river, and many hundreds of my constituents were affected. I hope that we can move swiftly to implement some of the measures that my right hon. Friend mentioned yesterday, such as enabling individual householders to
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obtain grants for flood boards, for example, or special devices that can cover air bricks to stop water entering properties. My constituents are already inquiring about that, and I hope that we get the details of those grant schemes very soon.

The final issue that I want to bring before the House is one of those “You couldn’t make it up” issues. It relates to rubbish collection in North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire, two neighbouring authorities across which my constituency happens to cut. In its eagerness to tell residents when their Christmas refuse would be collected, North East Lincolnshire decided to go on a sort of land grab and delivered its leaflets in the neighbouring authority. About 1,000 homes in North Lincolnshire were kindly given the refuse collection dates for the neighbouring authority.

As hon. Members can imagine, the phones were red hot. People wondered why on earth their refuse collections were being completely and utterly changed. Finally, I had to ask one person who the letter was from. They said, “Well, it is from the council—North East Lincolnshire council.” I said, “You live in North Lincolnshire council.” Now North Lincolnshire is having to re-leaflet the households to tell them that the arrangements have not totally changed. A cost has been put on one authority by another authority. I hope that North East Lincolnshire council will do the decent thing, put its hands up, say sorry and at least pay the cost of rectifying its mistake.

Finally—before Opposition Members leap up to take part in the debate—I wish every Member of the House a restful Christmas. We do not usually get many days off to rest. I also hope that everyone who works for us, all the people who work in the House and all our constituents have a restful Christmas.

royal assent

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Consolidated Fund Act 2008

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Christmas Adjournment

Debate resumed.

3.9 pm

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Although the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) is no longer in the Chamber, I do not want to disappoint him. I welcome all Members to my beautiful constituency in Devon, where when they have feasted at home, they will find the moors and the beaches are wonderful places to walk off all the extra chocolate that we have been warned about.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): There are no trains.

Angela Browning: I shall not talk about the trains because I want to talk about a problem we have with the M5, which goes through the middle of my constituency. Junction 28, at the small town of Cullompton, was part of the original motorway, but over the years services have been developed on the eastbound carriageway and it is now an official motorway services area. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the motorway exit does not match up to what one would normally expect to find on the exit to a services area. There is a small mini-roundabout at the top of the slip road and when articulated lorries in particular come off the motorway at that point, they swing across to the other lane—I hope I am not putting people off coming to Devon—to such an extent that one lane of the slip road has had to be closed.

I have held two meetings with Mid Devon district council, the Highways Agency and Devon county council and, more recently, on 1 December we met the regional development agency. It is obvious to anybody who uses that exit and that junction that its development over the years has outstripped the original infrastructure. Something significant needs to be done, not only to make the junction safer but to cope with the traffic.

There is obviously an impact on the town of Cullompton, which is right on the junction. It is not one of those towns that is miles from the motorway. As motorists leave the junction, they go straight on to Station road and are in the heart of the town within a minute. The development of the town and the growth of its facilities are being seriously restricted, because the motorway junction is significant for access to the town centre and also because there is a problem with traffic leaving the motorway to access the services.

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