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On behalf of the Conservative party, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) welcomed the Government’s recent announcement on the Royal Mail. I also welcomed it, but I do not approve of some of the changes that have been made over the past couple of weeks. As I do every year, I visited the sorting office in Cirencester last week to wish my postmen a happy Christmas, but they were a relatively unhappy lot because of the reduction in the amount of overtime
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and the higher targets that have been set. I have no problem with those changes, which have been made in the interests of efficiency, but it is unacceptable to introduce them—and thus make people miserable— just before Christmas.

Yesterday, I heard that my Royal Mail sorting office in Wotton-under-Edge is to close. I shall meet representatives of Royal Mail tomorrow but, again, why did the decision have to be announced within a week of Christmas? It only adds to the misery of the people who will lose their jobs, and I hope that Royal Mail will do its level best to find everyone new employment in adjoining sorting offices.

I want to make a few brief remarks about railway services in my area. One piece of good news is that the capacity of the Cotswold line is to be doubled, something for which I have campaigned successfully with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). However, although a better economic case can be made for it, there will be no doubling of capacity on the line between Swindon and Kemble. As one of the most cost-effective schemes in the south-west, it would have joined the cities of Swindon, Cheltenham and Gloucester at a cost of only £38 million. Connectivity would have been much improved, and the doubling of that line must be achieved to ensure that Gloucestershire’s economic growth and prosperity are to be maintained.

I turn now to the announcement of the Government’s U-turn on doctor’s dispensary surgeries made by the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope). It is extremely welcome to my constituents but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) said, people should not have been put through so much anxiety for so long. A further anxiety is that the new super-surgeries will put a number of my small rural doctor’s surgeries at risk. Again, I hope that the Government will not keep elderly and vulnerable people in anticipation for too long: if there are to be changes, let us make them quickly, as there is no need to keep people in suspense for months and months.

I hope that the Government will give rural areas very careful consideration. People think that the Cotswolds are rich and rosy, and in many ways they are. It is a superb place to live, but there are 110 villages and 11 market towns in my constituency and there are pockets of vulnerable, elderly and poor people in every one. They need just as much help from their Government as anybody anywhere else in this country.

The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is not in his place. He is chairman of the all-party beer group. I am chairman of the all-party wine group. I hope that everyone will visit their local pub. I wholly endorse that wish. When they go there, I hope that they will make the right choice and have a glass of good red burgundy instead of a glass of beer, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and every hon. Member will join me in wishing that everyone drinks responsibly this Christmas.

May I at this point, Madam Deputy Speaker, wish you, Mr. Speaker, the staff of the House and my own staff, who work hard day in, day out to support me, a very merry, happy Christmas and a successful new year?

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4.25 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to raise many issues. I do not expect the Minister to reply to any of them this afternoon, given the time, but if the appropriate Department could respond by Easter, that would be appreciated.

The debate takes place against the grimmest background that I have ever known. The country is in a mess; the world is in a mess. The British economy is in freefall. I am not sure that it has been appreciated just how serious things are. Without getting involved in an argument about the state of the British economy, let us make it clear that there has been no boom, but certainly there has been bust. How on earth a strategy can be pursued of the country borrowing more and more money, in the hope that that will get us out of the present state of affairs, I do not know. It is ridiculous. Roll on the general election, and let the British people decide. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, the Prime Minister underestimates the intelligence of the British people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) mentioned the war with Iraq. I will always regret that, on 18 March 2003, I was unwise enough to believe what Tony Blair said about weapons of mass destruction reaching this country and other parts within 45 minutes. I will regret that decision until the day I die. The latest combined estimated bill of £3.7 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan means that the two operations will have cost the taxpayer £13.2 billion over six years. That has not put the British economy in great shape. Approximately 8,100 British troops are now serving in Afghanistan and the Government have not ruled out sending more, despite what they said this afternoon. A total of 311 British soldiers have been killed—242 in action—and sent home in body bags from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. This includes 133 in Afghanistan and 178 in Iraq. I know that the Prime Minister told us earlier today that 41 countries have signed up to our involvement in Afghanistan, but I need more convincing about the real objective there. If anyone can come up with a solution to terrorism when people are prepared to take their own life, I would be interested to hear it.

We have just had an election in America. After Mr. Bush, I was not too concerned whether Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain took over; I just thought that whoever won would be better. I have to say that Labour has slavishly followed the American lead since 1997, with dire consequences in this country. Mr. Obama was elected on the basis of change. Well, his front-line team all seem to be Washington insiders—they are not new at all. Now that Mrs. Clinton is going to be gracing the stage in foreign affairs, I want our British Government, whatever party is in power, to put British interests first and no longer follow slavishly the American lead.

Many Members of Parliament will have constituents who have come from Zimbabwe. Their plight is awful. A lady who came to my last surgery told me that she had been raped in Zimbabwe, her husband had been murdered and her children are in South Africa. What can we say to someone in that situation? Another constituent, aged 18, entered the UK in August 2002 and has lived with her mother and sister in Westcliff ever since. Her mother is HIV positive and her father died in 2006. She already has some A and O-levels but she is expected to pay fees
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of £11,000 as an international student, yet she is not allowed to work and nor are her mother and sister. I hope that the appropriate Department will come up with a solution for them.

The arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was a disgrace and a stain on the mother of Parliaments. Any free-minded Member of Parliament must not let the matter drop. It is an absolute disgrace. A number of issues concern me about the police in general. I deal with any number of local cases in Essex—quite what the police authority does these days I do not know.

One of my constituents was verbally abused and threatened by two clients at a letting agency. The police did not turn up. The case is with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, where it goes on and on. Another wonderful family in my constituency lives next door to a serving Met police officer. There were all sorts of allegations between the two families, and eventually Essex police arrested my constituent, in front of his family, because he was accused of throwing a stone at a fence. That chap was arrested in front of his family and the local rabbi had to go down to the police station. That case has gone to the IPCC too. It is a wonderful organisation, but cases go on and on and nothing happens. I am dealing with one case that has been with the IPCC for more than four years.

Constituents ask me, “Are we living in a police state?”, and I wonder what can be going on when we have had a Labour Government since 1997. When they arrived, they were hostile to the police, but it was funny how the cash for honours issue was dealt with.

A number of colleagues have mentioned the baby P case. Recently, I was talking to Peter Forrest, who was the opposition leader on Haringey council and had a lead role during the Victoria Climbié inquiry. What he told me about what has gone on in Haringey is disgraceful. Recently, on a Channel 4 programme, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families was asked why Ofsted gave Haringey social services a three-star rating just after baby P died. The Minister said that Haringey had deceived Ofsted over the data. Mr. Forrest tells me that exactly the same point was made during the Victoria Climbié inquiry. When I was a member of the Health Committee, we took evidence from Lord Laming and we were told that there would never be another such disaster. Unfortunately, we all know what has happened.

I was privileged to pilot the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which should eliminate fuel poverty among vulnerable people by 2010 and for everyone by 2016. Recently, I was lobbied by Macmillan, which is concerned about the plight of cancer patients who need help with their heating bills because they cannot work or even move around their homes.

A constituent came to see me who, 28 years ago, had been imprisoned for five years because he was supposed to have witnessed a robbery—why he got five years I do not know. Twenty-eight years on he still cannot get insurance, and I should be grateful if a Department could come back to me with an answer about that issue.

Trinity family centre, which is a wonderful organisation funded by the lottery, helps many people. It has run out of money so any help that can be given would be greatly appreciated.

I am delighted to tell the House that Southend council is doing brilliantly; its star ratings in every area of its
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responsibility are better than ever. We recently discovered a Saxon site and we should very much like some money from the Government to assist us with a museum there, and if the Government could come up with a solution in respect of the roads that, too, would be greatly appreciated. On planning, I am very disappointed about the pressure put on locally to produce new housing and lovely buildings are then razed to the ground.

Tomorrow, I will be impersonating Father Christmas in Southend, West, but 24 hours before then, I wish everyone a very happy Christmas, good health, peace, prosperity and a much better new year.

4.35 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I shall not go into the finer points of his speech, but we are usually on the same side on human rights in Iran—an issue to which we will return in the new year.

I shall focus my brief comments on employment prospects in my constituency and exemplify some of the points that were made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on rurality and some of the challenges that face rural communities. He mentioned the post offices in his constituency. One of my great memories of the past year is the campaign that we fought to save 14 post offices in the Ceredigion constituency. Sadly, we lost that battle. In fact, the Post Office added another one to the list. Thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who fought to save one of the post offices in Brecon, we lost another one.

I hoped that we could value the Post Office’s claim that weight would be added to the campaign to keep a post office open if it was the last shop in the village. That was the experience of five post offices in Ceredigion: they were the last retail outlets in some of the most scattered rural communities in Wales. Sadly, despite the Post Office’s words and the elaborate consultation, it did not accept our argument. I believe that it did not stick to its word, and among the 15 closures, two shops have now gone, very much to the detriment of the communities concerned.

At this time of year, we will not be short of invitations to chapels, churches and school nativity plays. There will be community spirit still in those villages, but no one can say that the spirit of community will be enhanced by the boarding up and the permanent “shut” signs in the windows of those businesses. For those of us who are involved in Post Office consultations, that is a lesson about the value that we can attribute to the words in its criteria documents.

I was prompted to talk about the balance in Ceredigion between the public sector and the private sector by a newspaper article that was brought to my attention. It was published on 1 December in the Daily Mail, of all papers, and the headlines were “Welcome to Soviet Britain” and “Figures reveal the Labour heartlands where half the population relies on the state for a job”. Ten constituencies were listed and, perhaps to my surprise, Ceredigion featured sixth equal in that list. My constituency is not well known as part of the Labour heartland—nor is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—but it does boast a large number of public sector jobs.

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Some 40 per cent. of our work force are employed in the public sector in some manifestation. That is no surprise to Ceredigion. We have the national library, the funding settlement for which sadly means that the doors are often shut at weekends now, rather than open. We have two universities—Aberystwyth and Lampeter. The county council obviously covers a wide rural area—again, with a very difficult funding settlement. Of course, we have the national health service, with hospitals in Aberystwyth, Tregaron and Cardigan. However, to balance the picture, we also have the highest proportion of micro-businesses anywhere in Wales. We have an essential balance between the public and private sectors.

At a time when private sector jobs are being lost, we are also feeling the pinch in the public sector. The announcement of the closure of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in Aberystwyth was a body blow, not least because half way through the consultation, we felt that we had been successful in keeping at least some of the jobs in the compliance section, which was to remain open, albeit with a reduced staff. The expected loss of a further 20 high-skilled jobs at a factory that I visited yesterday—Protherics—in a very rural part of the county at Ffostrasol was a bitter blow. To some people, the loss of 20 jobs may not seem particularly significant, but in a sparsely populated rural area, the effect will be magnified enormously for the local community. On the same day on which those jobs were lost at Protherics, it was announced that hundreds of jobs were lost at Hoover in Merthyr Tydfil. Our sympathy goes out to the people affected.

The point that I want to get across to the House is that rural communities face incredible difficulties. When such decisions are made by people sitting in London or Cardiff—or indeed, in the current climate, in New York or Paris—with their spreadsheets in front of them, do they really understand the implications of some of them for the broader rural community? Ceredigion and West Wales and the Valleys are a convergence funding area—convergence funding follows on from the old objective 1 money—in recognition of the deprived nature of the economy. We are also a Communities First area because of the rural deprivation in many wards across the county.

In the short time available to me, I want to consider the tax office in Aberystwyth. The decision that was taken was a great shock to us in the county. If there is any glimmer of hope—any door that can be pushed open—I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pursue it with his colleagues. We are talking about highly skilled jobs that are really needed in the rural economy. I would particularly like to make the Government aware of the disappointment felt by HMRC staff about the advice on possible redeployment offered to them by their personnel department. The impact assessment relating to Crown buildings in Aberystwyth said:

we are talking about Ceredigion, in Wales—

Those Departments do not function in Wales, let alone Ceredigion. Many of my constituents felt insulted by
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the insensitive way in which they were furnished with a UK-wide document as they heard the news that they were about to lose their jobs.

Of course, any closures are regrettable, but we have real fears for HMRC about future service delivery—fears that may yet be realised. I encourage hon. Members to look at a map of HMRC offices; they will see that HMRC will be void of any presence in Powys, most of rural Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. The exception is the sparsely manned advice centres. When I had a meeting with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and his officials, I was told that a couple of outreach workers will cross Offa’s Dyke from England to resolve any problems as they arise. That is completely unacceptable.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): That comes at a time when the Government are saying that small businesses must be supported. Small businesses get a huge amount of advice and support from HMRC offices, and that will be denied to them in future.

Mark Williams: My hon. Friend is of course right. His constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, like my constituency of Ceredigion, boasts a huge number of small businesses. They need advice and support to get them through these difficult times.

When I met the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I was given the distinct impression that one function—the compliance function—would be retained locally. I am keen to find out what changed in the last two or three weeks of the consultation, between our being told that the compliance function was safe in Aberystwyth and that it was to be taken away. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House could convey that to the Treasury. On the same day, it was announced that the Merthyr Tydfil HMRC office was to be retained. I do not denigrate that at all; the issue is not whether that office should be retained—of course it should. What causes me concern is that there may well have been some kind of trade-off in the dying days of the consultation, as a result of which my constituents will suffer.

I have one other point to make. It may seem marginal to many, but it is of relevance to my constituency, and it illustrates the feeling that rural constituencies are being left to wither on the vine. It concerns European Community directive 2000/56/EC, which relates to the provision of motorcycle testing centres. Again, if one looks at a map showing motorcycle testing centres post-2009, one finds that there will be no motorcycle testing centres in the whole of Powys and Ceredigion. Anybody in my constituency who wishes to take a motorcycle test—we should remember that they will be learners—will have to travel to Swansea or Shrewsbury, far outside the recommended 45-minute or 20-mile journey. They will have to undertake a 150-mile round trip. It is incumbent on the Driving Standards Agency to look at the matter again.

Broadband has been mentioned. On a brighter note, there is a suggestion that there should be a universal service obligation in broadband provision, and that is to be welcomed. It will certainly be welcomed by Dr. Jenkins and Mrs. Ffrancon of Blaenplwyf in Ceredigion, who will rely desperately on broadband to further their academic and business work.

The electronic identification of sheep is another significant issue affecting the farmers of Ceredigion.
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We had a debate on the issue in Westminster Hall, and we got some sympathy from the colleague of the Deputy Leader of the House because of the injustice of the scheme. We have received the support of the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrat party and Plaid Cymru, which are against the scheme. Yet it is still pushing on, with potentially huge financial implications for the farming community across the country.

The story of rural communities is a sorry one; I hope that we can enter 2009 with more optimism. Notwithstanding that, I wish everybody—including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—a happy Christmas. From Wales we wish everyone Nadolig llawen.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I should like to try to give everybody the opportunity to speak, so it would be helpful if hon. Members took a little less than the allotted 10 minutes whenever possible.

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