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I am concerned that, in discussions with the various agencies, we have had great difficulty in persuading them, not that they should do something about the problem tomorrow but that they should plan and factor into the development of the motorway structure a radically different system to accommodate the changing needs. However, we have been met with opposition. It is true that the Highways Agency may consider some minor changes, because it realises that there is an immediate problem, but we were told that one of the reasons why nothing significant could be done was that the junction was at a small Devon town. If we were adjacent to a large city, we would probably have funding for the changes. It is particularly galling that decisions about important motorway junctions are based not on need but on something called a spatial strategya plan not
drawn up by the local people who use the junction and understand the priorities of the town or that part of the motorway, but by the regional development agency and, in particular, the regional assembly. Those bodies are unelected and unaccountable, yet they seem to have all the say about how money is spent and where the priorities for development and growth should be. It is yet another example of how rural areaseven a motorway junction in the middle of a rural areaand small towns lose out, because third parties, miles away from where we live, take significant decisions about what should or should not happen.
If the decisions had been left to Cullompton town council, Mid Devon district council and local people and they could have had a say in what happened in their area, it would be a different matter. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take on board what I am saying. Quite frankly, we must ask whether those bodiesthe RDAs and regional assembliesare really serving all the community that they have been given power over, or whether they are just selective about those interests that they think are more important. We talk about local decision making, but they do not think locally; they do not act locally.
I shall move on to issues that affect elderly peopleI declare an interest. [Hon. Members: No.] We have already heard that there was general disappointment in the House about the reply that the Leader of the House gave yesterday to the question on the 10 per cent. interest on savings that is deemed to apply to benefits. That particularly affects elderly people who want to obtain pension credit and other important benefits that affect people who are at the margins of being eligible to apply for benefits. There is a significant change of circumstances, with interest rates dropping. I should like to add my support to those Members who have already said that the Government should urgently consider this matter. As has been said, people who have saved and people who rely on sometimes quite small amounts of investment income from their building society and bank accounts that are really important to their general well-being and their household budgets now find that that money is not there. I am really quite worried when people laughingly say, Oh well, the only place to keep your money these days is under the bed. Frankly, that is very worrying, but it is something that we shall face, particularly if interest rates go down to zero, which is not impossible. I hope that the Government will think again about that.
I should also like to refer to the help that the Government are giving to people who qualify for help with insulation. I have heard the Prime Minister talk about helping elderly people with money to help not just with fuel, but with insulating and improving their homes. I got an e-mail this week from a constituent who wrote:
My free home insulationcavity walls and loftwas arranged for 11th December but postponed indefinitely, at two days notice, due to lack of funding. Is this yet another example of a splendid initiative by HMG that has been inadequately implemented and funded? At the age of 76, this sort of disappointment is very difficult to take, without getting depressed.
I am pleased to report to the House that it looks as though that situation will be resolved for that gentleman, but what is the problem with that policy, which has been spoken about frequently by the Prime Minister personally? We are now in December, before we have even reached
the hardest months of the winter, and contracts that were being implemented are suddenly stopped in their tracks at two days notice. I really do not understand why that should be, and I wonder whether the Deputy Leader of the House would be good enough to look at that and get back to me.
I should also like the Deputy Leader of the House to take up another issue with the appropriate Minister. I have tried to raise it with the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change. I raised it with the former Energy Minister earlier in the year, and it took eight months to get a reply, despite several promptings. I am still waiting for a reply to a request that I made in November to the current Energy Minister.
There is something called the Gas Act 1986, in which protection was given to people who had to buy their gas from their landlords. That protection was put in place so that landlords could not exploit their tenants. Several people in my constituency live in park homes, and some of them have to buy their gas through their landlords. They also buy liquefied petroleum gas. I understand that the protection given to people who buy gas does not cover such fuel, which has been provided by landlords more recently, as it was not included in the Gas Act 1986, because it is an oil-based product. Unless we can assist people who have to buy their fuel through third partiesand I do mean have toand cannot shop around in the marketplace to get the best deal, they will be sitting ducks if landlords wish to exploit them.
Measures should be introduced; the Government could either identify an existing Bill to which they could be added, or could add them to an appropriate Bill in the next couple of months. It is wrong that landlords can exploit people through the resale of fuel, which is so important to people. There are some very nice park homes in my constituency, but people who live in park homes are, almost by definition, not the wealthiest people. They are predominantly older people from an older generation. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give the issue serious consideration.
I want to make one more quick point. It is about generic prescribing. I had a letter from a young man who has to take drugs for his epilepsy every day. He pointed out to me that he has great difficulty because of generic prescribing. When he goes to get his repeat prescription, it is not always the same drug, although chemically, I am told, it should be. His body has got used to one particular compilation of drugs. He is concerned that the way in which the drugs are put together means that he has difficulty moving from one brand to another, although technically the drug is the same.
I take prescribed drugs, and will have to do so for the rest of my life. I take one of the drugs as a tablet twice a day, which is very simple, but recently I noticed that I have got a different sort of drugthese are all generic drugsand I was told to take it an hour before I eat. I
was presented with a problem; I thought, Does that mean Ive got to wake up at 6 oclock to take the drug, go back to sleep for an hour, and then get up and have breakfast? These things are really quite difficult. Of course, not everybody reads all the small print on those little boxes of medication. I always do.
Will the Minister be good enough to have a word with the Department of Health about the issue? I am not suggesting that there are big differences in what is prescribed, but sometimes there are significant differences that are of concern to people for whom it is important, as far as their medical condition is concerned, to take the same medication at the same time each day. May I wish everybody in the HouseMembers, staff and officersa very happy Christmas? And dont forgetcome to Devon for the new year.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am hoping that everybody who wishes to contribute to the debate will be able to do so. I have had my eye on the clock, and after the next speaker, the time limit on speeches will be reduced to 10 minutes. That way, I hope that everybody will be able to make their contribution.
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I will support the cause and be very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to weave my talk around a document that has just been produced by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, a creative manoeuvre of the Governments from early on in the 1997 period. The documents title is Attacking the Recession: How Innovation Can Fight the Downturn. It points out that many countries have historically got out of recessionrecessions come and goby playing to their strengths. It mentions Finland, Japan and other countries. It talks about the strengths of economiesthe parts that are movingand argues that such considerations can give people a chance to develop new ideas, innovations and new ways of thinking. Perhaps we need to emphasise that a little more, with regard to what we are doing creatively.
Now for a sharp contrast: the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who is in the Chamber, will know that I always mention railways, because I have a real fetish about the Norwich to London rail line. He has worked with me on the issue. That rail line has everything that the document tries to replace. It suffers from absolute defeatism; it cuts jobs; it closes Delia Smith-approved restaurant carsthere is not much better than thoseand it gives every excuse for lateness, from foxes on the line to cars on the line. Anyone who wants an exciting journey from Norwich should get a train on that line. It will stop outside the emerging Olympic village, which can be seen growing in the time that the train sits there. That is an amazing feature; I am sure that many young people would like to see how buildings can be stuck up at that rate. Blow me, but when the Princess came to Norwich on Monday, she was late as well. Once we get the royals on our side, we might make some progress.
Some of us have been trying to get the line repaired for some time. If there is snow, the line gets paralysed for days. This country invented the train, yet here we are still with these problems. For the next three years at
weekends we will again have to get on buseswe have already had three years of getting buses on Saturday mornings or Sundays and so on. Many people who work or study in London come up to Norfolk and are subjected to all that.
Some of us have also fought for the dualling of the A11. Thanks to the Government, it looks as though it will happen sooner rather than later; the last few miles are about to be done. The hon. Member for South Norfolk has given up on the trains; he now takes his car, and the dual carriageway will be ready for him before the trains are in order.
We are trying to do all these things in a country where the train is absolutely essential. It can be pleasant and fun, and when it works it really works. Restaurant cars can be very conducive to good interactions between people. In general, we need to bite the bullet on the train network in this country and make it really fit for purpose. Many construction and engineering jobs would come too, and that would be part and parcel of taking our country forward in the current situation. Furthermore, if National Express and the rail network do not get it together, my solution, as always, would be to renationalise the railways. The cry for that will grow and grow. We will get to the point reached in New Zealand, where the Labour party Government nationalised the railway to the advantage of the railway system, which improved under former Prime Minister Helen Clark. I think that in this country we will also move that way pretty sharply and shortly.
We often hear about boom and bust. Capitalism is all about boom and bust; there is no use in kidding ourselvesit booms and busts, and that is just one of its features. The odd green shoots will be on the way as we go through this recession, and perhaps a general election will move things along. We have to keep nagging the Government to make sure that we build on our strengths and reshape our futures, not only in the next six months but in the next five to 10 yearswe have to have our eyes on that period as well.
Finally, I turn to Norwich and Norfolk in the context of looking ahead and fighting for a strategy to develop the countys strengths. We need to be much more proactive. For example, as the document that I mentioned clearly states, the growth in the financial realm will probably decrease. Norwich used to be all about Norwich Unionpeople intermarried and all got jobs there, but things have changed. The financial sector has moved and it will move more.
What are the chances of getting something going in my constituencys part of the world? What strengths do we have that will bring us out of the recession even faster? Norwich has a famous research park, which includes the university of East Anglia, the Norfolk and Norwich hospital and three independent institutesthe John Innes centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Sainsbury laboratory. One should not laugh, but the John Innes centre has produced purple tomatoes. They are genetically modifiedwe may have an argument about that, and I am sure that the issue will come up again. The tomatoes are full of anthocyanins. They are good for the health, allegedly. How do I know? When they were tried on mice, the mice lived longer. It will not be long before we will be trying them out on the
Opposition. I shall bring some down and slip them into their heavy diets, because I know that their Front Benchers are worried about obesity.
In the field of biotechnology, many exciting things are happening in Norwich, as they are across the country. It is the coming science. As the Minister for Science and Innovation in the other place, who made his name in biotechnology, has said, this part of the world, and the United Kingdom in general, is the arena where things are really going to happen. Another example is broccoli, which has chemicals called sulforophane. Using conventional plant-breeding methods, broccoli can be increased to super-broccoli status by having more of those chemicals. That has been shown in many cases to reduce rates of cancer. As Members will know, we have here a very successful and powerful all-party cancer group. Ministers come to see us, and we have a day called Britain Against Cancer. That is now reflected in Norfolk. Patient groups attended, and we had tremendous support from right across the county. The interesting thing was that no more money was needed. We discussed the interactions between people and the innovatory ways in which they were going to deliver the servicesand blow me, one week later the local hospital delivered some of them. That may have been going to happen anyway, as these things do. However, things are increasingly moving back to the localities, and we should try to reflect some of the activities that we have learned about in this place down at the local level.
The university of East Anglia is famous for its creative writing department, with Malcolm Bradbury, Ian McEwanthe names go on and on. It has the Tyndall centre for climate change research, which is a world leader in that field. An organisation called Carbon Reduction, or C-Red, is interacting with industry to help and advise it. The university interacts with local industry in advising people about their energy needs and so on. It has helped Adnams, the great brewery. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) has left the Chamber now, but we are trying to get Adnams beer into the House. It is difficult because it is a big name. Adnams has created the worlds first carbon-neutral beer. I do not know what it does for hangovers, but the fact that it is carbon neutral is quite a success.
As for an engineering school, UAE does not have one. About 2 miles down the road, there is a Lotus factory that gets involved in making cars, engineers work there, and there is Formula 1 and Snetterton race track. Young people could be stimulated to take an interest in engineering at a time when this country is crying out for engineers. We need to interact at that level with universities. If we can get that interaction with research institutes, communities and the health service, we can get it right across the board. Part of the problem with universities is that they are hooked into
the research assessment exercise, the results of which come out today. Their whole lives are taken up with trying to survive a rigorous assessment system.
We have all this biotechnological development going on in that part of the world. We have low-carbon technologies coming along, and health care products. With some initiative, we could ensure that travel, the railways and tourism expand at the same time and we become the regional hub. The social issues are part and parcel of that, and many initiatives are going on. There are groups such as Transition Norwich, where 500 people will come along to a meeting in a big hall on a Wednesday night to discuss how they can get involved with their environment and their community by having their own allotments or keeping bees. So there is a grass-roots feeling that can be tapped and I believe that that sort of community spiritwith people interacting and creating thingscan sort out many problems. The local food produce schemes will be a big thing.
Let us get the railways right and get green technology going. Broadband access has been mentionedwe still do not have a national fibre-optic cable network, and that needs to be achieved. We need a human capital strategy, whereby we work with young people, who perhaps do not go to university for three or four years, and enable them to duck out of education and come back into it. All those novel ideas exist, and we need a regional innovation strategy. However, I do not know who will deliver it.
Norfolk is by the sea and it is blowy, but there is, as yet, no wave energy of which I am aware. There is some wind energy, and talk of turbines in the North sea and so on, but we need to get going and get zippy, and interact with firms that can build such things, as well as with other countries.
A co-ordinated approach is the way forward. We need it for the many young people who want to set up businesses. The document that I mentioned at the outset is all about building on the strength of the creativity of our young people. Some will be writers, some will be engineers, some will be scientists and othersvery fewwill be politicians. However, at the end of the day, we must get resources from the organisations that work in the relevant parts of the country to push the creativity that exists. It is our strength and will be a major feature of getting out of the recession.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Like many hon. Members, I had the experience of attending a school nativity play last week. It was at Killermont primary school in my constituency and it was delightful. It brings home the spirit of Christmas, which is an especially exciting time for children.
However, it is important to remember that, behind the fairy lights, Christmas carols and jubilation, many people carry great worriesespecially financial worries in the current economic climateon their shoulders at this time of year. It is especially galling when Government incompetence causes those financial worries. I know that most Members of Parliament encounter many Child Support Agency cases in which the CSA has been unable to enforce judgments and make parents who do not have care of their children pay for their maintenance.
Recently, I came across a case in which the ex-husband had made significant maintenance payments because he earned a good salary, but my constituent was left on benefits and did not know that the payments were being made. That went on for several years, and she found out only through a freedom of information request. If she could have got the payments to which she was entitled for her and her children, she would have been in a position to take on part-time work and make pension contributions, and her financial situation would be entirely different. That is an example of the appalling mess into which the CSA gets.
Another example of Government incompetence is the tax credit system. My constituent Mr. MacMillan did not confirm his income in time and consequently was presented with a bill for more than £8,000 to repay. Suddenly getting a letter through the door demanding such a sum is terrifying for people on tax credits. The figure has thankfully been reduced to £4,000, but it is still a significant sum. Let us remember that my constituent was entitled to the money, and that the position arose because of one error of not confirming his income in time. That is an incredibly harsh way in which to treat individuals, especially when the tax credit system gets so many things wrong through overpayments or underpayments. I have lost count of the constituents who tell me that they wish they had never applied for tax credits.
Kaupthing Isle of Man is another financial issue that worries many constituents. Many had invested, sometimes through UK companies, and had no idea that their money had been taken offshore, but they now stand to lose significant sums. On 13 November, the Leader of the House said:
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