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Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I shall certainly follow your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Like my colleagues, I should like to wish everyone, particularly the staff who have been so supportive to me in difficult times, a very merry Christmas and a prosperous new year.
Given that Father Christmasnot necessarily the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess)is due shortly, it is tempting to say what I want for Christmas. I want many things for Christmas. I am grateful for having been called to speak, incidentally, given that I have an Adjournment debate on Sri Lanka after this debate.
I have many aspirations for my constituency. There has been a change to railway timetables on the main line from Brighton through East Croydon to London. The authorities have had the problem of shuffling the pressures on that line. That has been particularly difficult because the Gatwick Express dominates track space while being poorly used, and therefore discriminates significantly against the interests of commuters in south London.
One of the impacts of providing additional priority for rail users south of East Croydon has been a withdrawal of the important service that runs eventually from East Croydon to Crystal Palace. That is because of the removal of services from Smitham to London Bridge, particularly in the day time. There is an irony in the reductions, given that at the same time we have had the upsetting news that the Greater London authority has decided not to progress the extension of the tram link to Crystal Palace. Those two pieces of news are a double blow for Croydon and Crystal Palace.
I suggest that one way of finding the cheapest solution for making provision is to reopen what was platform 7 at Norwood Junction station. That would mean that there was a new turn-back facility for trains, which would be able to go to Crystal Palace and Victoria from Norwood Junction. The railway authorities estimated that that would cost just £10 million. The issue exercises many MPs with constituencies to the north of Croydon, Central. I am grateful for the great deal of support that I have had, particularly from Labour Members of Parliament, on that issue. I am also pleased to work
with the Conservative council in Croydon, the Labour party in Croydon, Ken Livingstone and the right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks) to campaign to keep the issue of the Croydon tram link very much on the agenda.
I am afraid to say that as a child it was possible for me to dream of the most generous of presents, and I am going to name one or two more that would be appropriate for Croydon before finishing early to allow other Members sufficient time to contribute. If there is to be significant fiscal stimulation through capital spend by the Government, every opportunity should be taken to act not only to improve public sector provision but in an intelligent and stimulating way towards local economies to bring in private sector participation.
For a long time, the key gateway site next to East Croydon station has been undeveloped. That is partly because there were, unfortunately, some foolish approaches by Croydon council, which backed only one developer on its proposal for an arena site, which I am glad to say the Minister concerned decided, with extremely good judgment, not to support, after several appeals. We are left with a site that many people who travel to Gatwick or the south coast will have seen to be completely empty and undeveloped for the past 35 years.
One way in which that site could be developed is through public sector involvement. I would like Croydons very limited Mayday university hospital site in Thornton Heath, which many residents to the south of Croydon are reluctant to use, to be replaced with a development on the East Croydon site. That would also allow for the provision of appropriate public sector-supported housing for nurses. Many people from across south London could reach that site with a great deal of convenience. At the moment, constituents coming from the east of East Croydon have to use two bus routes to attend that hospital. That is not appropriate for people who are ill or old and frail.
I express a final wish in my remaining 14 seconds. There is a huge bottleneck on the rail system at East Croydon. Ultimately, we need an extra two platforms so that all these capacity issues can be dealt with appropriately.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a very important matter in the Housethe worsening security situation in Israel and the Gaza strip. I shall focus particular attention on the plight of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by the terrorist Hamas movement for two and a half years.
Since Israels unilateral disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, 5,128 rockets and mortar shells have been fired into southern Israel, and since 2001 24 people have been killed and 620 injured. One hundred and fifty rockets have been launched in the past six weeks alone, and 17 just yesterday, which is despite a truce negotiated through the Egyptian Government that came into effect on 19 June this year. Israels withdrawal from Gaza was a courageous act based on a desire for a long-term negotiated peace and for the self-determination of the Palestinian people through a viable and secure Palestinian state.
Regrettably, the leaders of Hamas remain wedded to a vile Islamist ideology and the creation of an Islamic state secured by violence and the eradication of the
state of Israel. Since the withdrawal, 150 Hamas operatives have completed so-called training courses in Iran, and 600 have received instruction by Iranian operatives in Syria, which is unacceptable to the international community. Hamas continues to smuggle weapons into Gaza through a vast network of tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border and to broadcast jihadist propaganda on Hamas TV. Specifically, they refuse to comply with the three Quartet principles, making progress in talks with Israel all but impossible.
I want to revert to the plight of Gilad Shalit. Hon. Members know the cause of the Lebanon war in 2006. Although most people know that the catalyst was Hezbollahs kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers from the Israeli side of the Lebanon-Israel border, it is less well known that Hamas kidnapped an Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit. At 5.40 am on 25 June 2006, in an attack on the kibbutz Kerem Shalom in Israel, two soldiers were killed, four others were wounded and Corporal Shalit was captured. The terrorists had infiltrated the kibbutz through a tunnel from Rafah. The Hamas leadership authorised and spearheaded the attack, taking full responsibility for the raid and praising the terrorists as heroes of the Palestinian people.
As we know, Hezbollah subsequently murdered the two soldiers in Lebanon. Their bodies were given back to Israel in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, one of whom, Samir Kuntar, a vicious child murderer, was recently given the order of merit by the Syrian regime. I am delighted that the evident disgust of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), comes through in his written answer to me, dated 17 December. I know that Foreign Office Ministers have taken up the matter informally with Syria.
In more than 900 days of captivity, Gilad Shalit has not been allowed visiting rights or even access to any humanitarian organisations. Despite repeated demands from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Hamas has refused him the most basic human rights. Hamas has flagrantly violated every aspect of international law, including humane treatment of its prisoner, his familys right to know of his well-being and permitting humanitarian access.
On 16 June 2006, Shalits captors offered to release him if Israel agreed to free all female Palestinian prisoners and all prisoners under 18. More recently, Hamas, Egypt and Israel have come to a standstill on the terrorist groups demand for the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Last week, Israel released 200 from a list of 450 men that Hamas submitted. To date, Israel has freed 450 prisoners in return for the 22-year-old serviceman.
On 25 June 2007, the Israeli human rights organisation, BTselem, issued a statement that,
international humanitarian law absolutely prohibits taking and holding a person by force to compel the enemy to meet certain demands, while threatening to kill or harm the person if the demands are not met.
To assist Corporal Shalit and put pressure on Hamas to grant Red Cross access, parliamentarians throughout Europe are leading campaigns to highlight his case. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), my right hon. Friend the
Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who yesterday lobbied the Red Cross to ensure that humanitarian access for Gilad Shalit remains high on its agenda.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire launched the European-wide initiative at an international conference in November in Paris and has led the campaign with the Red Cross. Hamas is keen to convince the Red Cross that it is a force with which to be negotiated. However, in reality, it behaves barbarically and flagrantly flouts the most basic tenets of international law. Burning effigies of Corporal Shalit and barring even the Red Cross is symbolic of the activities of a terrorist organisation, not a movement that genuinely seeks a just settlement for the Palestinian people.
Indeed, far from trying to make moves towards peace, the Hamas leader in Syria, Kahlid Mashal, has declared that the ceasefire will end on 19 Decemberin a few days. That means that Israeli towns such as Sderot, which lies just outside Gaza, will again be subject to intense daily missile bombardment.
As we approach Christmas and Chanukah, many people throughout Europe and the middle east are working for the release of Corporal Shalit. By doing that, we hold up a standard for humanitarian and civilised values. The campaigns might help the Red Cross gain the access that this Israeli hostage deserves, and be a small step on the road to achieving a just and peaceful settlement and the goal of an enduring two-state solution in the middle east. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House encourages his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to continue their efforts.
In the meantime, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish you and all the Officers and staff of the House a wonderful and restful Christmas, and a successful and prosperous 2009.
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I wish to raise my concerns over allegations that institutionalised fraud took place at the former Manchester college of arts and technology, better known as MANCAT. Many unanswered questions remain, and I feel that the matter is relevant for two reasons: first, that further education colleges are calling for increased powers of self-regulation; and secondly, that the new Manchester college created by the merger of MANCAT and City college is run largely by former MANCAT senior management.
To recap, allegations were made by several members of staff at MANCAT relating to the falsification of paperwork such as student registers and additional learning support forms, which, it was said, enabled the college to obtain extra money from the further education body, the Learning and Skills Council. Following my last speech on this subject, I submitted written questions on 2 June to the LSC chief executive, Mark Haysom. I was keen to know why MANCAT kept a secondary system of registers, not produced or signed by tutors, on which to base funding claims, but I received no explanation.
One of my main concerns was the wholesale destruction of auditable documents by the college, which thwarted inquiries by the LSCs own investigator into the allegations.
The documents included, among much else, original registers compiled by tutors. I asked Mr. Haysom who was responsible, who authorised the destruction, how long it had been going on, exactly what had been destroyed and why MANCAT had informed auditors that it had kept records for the requisite six years when it had not done so. I also asked whether any sanctions had been taken against MANCAT when it was discovered that the records had been destroyed. I received no answers to those questions. All that I was told by Mr. Haysom was:
Failure to maintain and keep appropriate records was one of the issues taken very seriously by the LSC in subsequent dialogue with the college aimed at tightening and improving the colleges audit systems.
In many spheres of work, destroying auditable documents would merit dismissal from post, but I am not aware of any senior managers at MANCAT having been sacked, nor am I aware of any disciplinary proceedings being taken against them. Indeed, the core of its senior management team, including the principal, Peter Tavernor, and the deputy principal, Barbara Forshaw, now run the new Manchester college, which was formed in August 2008. It is one of the two biggest further education colleges in the country, with an estimated annual turnover of £130 million.
Shortly after my Adjournment debate speech of 22 May, I received a confidential letter from someone working in Manchesters FE sector, telling me:
It is well worth pursuing your enquiries and a lot of people in Manchester would be greatly heartened by any public enquiry or investigation.
There is a great deal of nervousness regarding the forthcoming merger.
Information has come to light about how the new Manchester college is being run, and it gives me cause for concern. One aspect is that several capable former members of MANCATs administration staff, who left MANCAT years ago and joined City college because they were unhappy about MANCATs record keeping, have now, following the merger, been made redundant at the new institution and asked to sign confidentiality agreementsbetter known as gagging clausesas a condition of receiving the redundancy payments to which they are entitled. It is also my understanding that some of these staff had witnessed malpractice at MANCAT, namely the manipulation of student numbers. Students who had left part-way though a course remained on the database, and the college had continued to claim funding for them throughout the academic year. The Public Accounts Committee has long deplored the use of public money and gagging clauses to prevent people from revealing abuses in the workplace. That approach was routinely used by management at MANCAT to silence potential whistleblowers, which I raised in the Adjournment debate on 22 May. It would appear that this pattern is continuing at the new college.
Moreover, it is my understanding that the acutely sensitive posts of head of student records and head of management information systems at Manchester college are now being run by a husband and wife team with a close personal connection to the principal of the college, Peter Tavernor. It is the job of one or other of those employees to validate and audit data on which funding claims are based. I am not stating there has been
impropriety, but surely that arrangement cannot be ideal, bearing in mind that there are so many unanswered questions surrounding Mr Tavernors former college.
I believe that the public have long been denied the rigorous investigation at MANCAT that they deserve. Mr. Haysom has made it clear that the Learning and Skills Council has no appetite for a further investigation, because the crucial records that constituted potential evidence have been destroyed, and because the events occurred several years ago. All that remains highly relevant, however, not only because the new Manchester college is largely being run by senior MANCAT personnel, but because the FE sector as a whole is calling for further self-regulation.
According to the Association of Colleges website, a system is envisaged that will be
characterised by a reduction in the regulatory demands placed on providers and single ownership of the regulatory framework facilitated by the single voice.
In so far as that tortuous sentence makes sense at all, I think that it means that it believes that FE colleges should be trusted to run their own affairs without too much scrutiny or interference from outside. It goes on:
We envisage a self-regulation system in which providers
become respected and trusted partners of Government by recognising their statutory responsibilities and their accountability for the effective delivery of national policy and the efficient use of public funds.
I particularly note the word trusted, as trust was conspicuously absent in MANCATs relationship with its former external auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was called in to investigate after a former lecturer raised concerns about the manipulation of student registers. Six months after that exercise, PricewaterhouseCoopers resigned, and the PWC partner, Lee Childs wrote to Peter Tavernor, stating:
Frankly, I do not believe it possible to audit effectively without trust on both sides.
I am aware that MANCAT has always refuted allegations of fraud and malpractice even though detailed allegations of manipulated paperwork surfaced independently from different individuals in unconnected departments. After my last Adjournment debate speech, I received indignant letters from two MANCAT governors claiming that the allegations had always been unsubstantiated. They informed me that since those events the college has had an Ofsted inspection and an LSC review of its financial governance systems with exemplary results and that its maintenance of student records had been described by PricewaterhouseCoopers as a model of good practice.
I have no doubt that much good work has been done at MANCAT, but I am also mindful that in 2002 it had had its previous Ofsted inspection just as allegations began to surface. A grade 1, which is outstanding, was awarded to the English for speakers of other languages department, but it subsequently emerged in signed statements from several former staff that that department was allegedly riddled with the sort manipulation that I have described.
Several tutors in ESOL and in the department of computer imaging were pressed to alter the registers on which funding was based. One tutor in computer imaging was reported as saying:
If students were absent, we had to mark them with a zero, which meant they did not attend; did not contact college...The student would be withdrawn after three zeros, but I was told not to mark students who ceased to attend with a zero. It was explained to me that if a student were to be withdrawn before a certain benchmark date, the college would lose funding...I was told by a divisional leader to mark a student who had ceased to attend as being off with authorised absence or AA in the register. I was very uneasy about this; I put A, or absent and from then on photocopied my registers each week.
Another former tutor in the ESOL department told of registers being altered after they had been handed into the departmental head, Marina Parha:
Names unfamiliar to the class teacher had appeared and in some cases existing students had been marked present when they had, in fact, been absent...On showing my own registers to Marina Parha in the first term of the academic year 2001-02, I was asked by her what all the zeros were for. When I explained they indicated student absences, she replied: I dont like all those zeroswell have to do something about that. In a subsequent meeting, she told me to change some of the zeros to ticks for a few weeks. I did not argue and neither did I alter my registers.
I refer to what one former ESOL lecturer said in a statement prepared for a colleague who intended to take MANCAT to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal. The lecturer said that
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