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The G20 may have junked the environment this week, but we have time before Copenhagen in December to lay the groundwork for a serious climate deal that could make a huge difference. We need our Government to take a lead on that now, and to be at the forefront of climate negotiations. We must have a serious commitment to cut emissions by at least 30 per cent., not the 20 per cent. with time off for carbon trading that came with the European Union deal. We must also put developing countries concerns at the heart of the climate change deal. We have grown rich in part by polluting. We must now repay that debt to the developing world by financing and sharing technology so that countries can access clean and green energy and develop in a sustainable
way, and we must help developing countries to adapt to the damaging consequences of climate change that will, unfortunately, happen regardless of what we do.
We need to create space to encourage and enable communities to come up with their own solutions. That is the case in both developing countries and here in the UK. We need the Government to take a lead, but this is the responsibility of all of us, and good ideas often come from communities, rather than just from Government. I am thinking of one example in Brent in particular: a woman called Lorraine Skinner felt so frustrated about the consequences of climate change and the fact that people were not prepared to act that she designed a new system called green zones, which has now been adopted throughout Brent. She went door to door and talked to her neighbours on her road. It is a relatively small road, but by her efforts she has managed to raise dramatically the amount of recycling and composting that takes place on it. She has also given people tomato plants and persuaded them to plant them. That may be a small thing, but sometimes it is small things that actually change peoples attitudessuch as on growing their own food or feeling that they can take action. A similar small thing has been done in Camden, where people have been encouraged to plant fruit trees in the middle of their estates. As a result, they feel that they can play a part, and that there are things they can do.
We all have a role to play, but I hope the Government will consider the key role that they have to play, particularly before the Copenhagen conference later this year. We do not have time to waste waiting for another international meeting. We must not junk this issue and wait until a later meeting to address it because we cannot face tackling it now.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I sometimes wonder whether I have done something to upset the gods of democracywhom we can rename the Whips Office for the purpose of this analogybecause today is my wedding anniversary and I find myself in the House of Commons Chamber. Also, tomorrow is my birthday, and last year this debate fell on my birthday. It therefore appears that I am not allowed out of this place to enjoy such events.
There are, however, several issues that I want to bring to the attention of the House and Ministers in advance of the Easter recess. The first of them is a very local issue: the Humber bridge. Indeed, most of the issues I shall raise will be extremely parochial, in contrast to the international themes raised in the speech of the previous contributor, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather).
The Humber bridge links my Lincolnshire constituency with Yorkshire on the north bank of the Humber. At the beginning of March, there was an inquiry into a proposal to increase the tolls to cross the bridge by 20p each way. I presented evidence at the inquiry against the toll increase, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart). More Members of Parliament would have given evidence had we not been the only three whom the Whips Office allowed out. However, although only three MPs from the region appeared, we put our case forcefully and stridently on behalf of our constituents.
Everybody in my area has opposed the increase in the bridge tolls. As I am sure Members can appreciate, in any economic climate, let alone the current one, people do not welcome having such an extra pressure on their purse. People from across the political divide were saying that to the inspector. However, my concern and the reason I want to raise the issue today is that the public inquiry was at the beginning of March, has not reported yet and obviously has to go to the Secretary of State for Transport, so constituents have been left in limbo, not knowing whether the inspector will approve the increase in the tolls.
This issue is vital, because there is an ongoing campaign about the tolls to cross the Humber bridge. The four unitary councils in the surrounding area came together and commissioned research to show the tolls economic impact on our area. Everybody had said anecdotally that the tolls were a barrier to economic development and growth. However, the report showed that empirically, so we now have very strong evidence to enable us to present to Ministers the case that the tolls were holding back the economic development of our area. The campaign is therefore ongoing. Putting aside the 20p increase, which everybody is against, people generally want the tolls reduced to get rid of this barrier.
Three options are available as a way forward. There is a debt from the building of the bridge because the money was borrowed from the public works department. However, despite the fact that over the years the tolls have paid off the original amount borrowed, because of interest the debt keeps rolling on like some huge behemoth and we never seem to be able to pay it off. The campaign is concerned with the Governments writing off the remaining debt owed to the Treasury arising from the money borrowed to build the Humber bridge. As I say, the capital amount has been paid back already from the tolls. However, that leaves the question of the repairs to, and the maintenance of, the bridge, and this is where the options come in.
I was quite surprised by the outcome of the surveys that I conducted on this issue. The first of the three options is to write off the debt and for the Government to take over responsibility for the Humber bridge, paying for all the repairs, maintenance and so on. There would be absolutely nothing left in the way of debt, and free crossings for everybodywonderful! The second option is to write off the debt and to pay for repairs and maintenance through increasing the council tax. The third option is to reduce the tolls substantially to, say, £1 per crossing, and the money raised could cover the cost of repairs and maintenance.
I thought that the majority of people would go for the nothing to pay option, but in fact, most went for the token amount. Some 75 per cent. of people said, Paying a pound would be okay, and that would cover the repairs and maintenance. Interestingly, virtually nobody thought that it would be an excellent idea to increase the council tax to cover the repairs and maintenance, although there was one personI think he knows who he iswho suggested that we bring back the ferry that used to connect the village of New Holland with the city of Hull. He was the only person who wanted that.
We presented the case to Ministers through Adjournment debates in the Chamber, but because the inspector has not reported on the 20p increase that the bridge board
wants to introduce, we cannot bring delegations from the business community and local authorities to Westminster to press the case for reducing the tolls overall. We are, in essence, in a state of limbo.
I hope that my raising the issue today means that the message will work its way through the system, so that whoever needs to know about it realises that we need to take this issue forward, particularly in this economic climate, and that the inspector reports and we can then make progress on our lobbying to reduce the tolls.
What is gratifying about this campaign, which will be ongoing, is that the bridge board, which has been somewhat reluctant in the past to agree with Members of Parliament about tolls, has understood the weight of opinion in the area for reduced tolls; it has seen the empirical research commissioned by the councils showing that there would be substantial economic growth if that barrier were reduced. The board itself has said that it would like to try out, for perhaps a years trial period, a toll of £1 to cross the bridge. Its view has come into line with that of the people campaigning on this issue, but we cannot make progress on this because we have not yet had the report. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make sure that the right ears hear that particular plea.
Last night, a debate on business rates took place in the Chamber, during which I said that if there are job losses in my constituency, as I believe there will be as a result of this double taxation on certain core businesses in the port of Immingham, the hinterland of the people involved will be cut because of the tolls on the Humber bridge. For someone who has lost their job, the idea of paying more than £5 for a return to cross the bridge will make them think again about applying for a job on the other side of the river. To many of my constituents the whole area on the north bank may as well not exist. The travel patterns were part of the research conducted, and it was demonstrated that the toll was a substantial barrier. People do not cross the bridge to access training, so it is also hindering their opportunities. I feel that it also affects social mobility in our area. I know that people turn down jobs on the other side of the river because they do their sums and work out that they will spend more than £1,000 a year in tolls.
I have just been talking about the toll for cars, but the Humber bridge is one of the only major toll bridges where there is also a charge for motorbikes. The toll for freight is phenomenal and, because of the cost, businesses avoid taking jobs that necessitate crossing the river. That is why it is vital in this economic climate to see whether something can be done to give a stimulus to economic growth in that part of the country. The Government have said that they will do all they can to help British businesses through the economic downturn, and acting on this issue would be an excellent way to give a boost to my part of the country.
I believe that I mentioned my next local issue in a previous recess Adjournment debate; the regulars here will doubtless groan when I mention compensation for former distant water trawlermen again [Interruption.] I hear the Deputy Leader of the House groaning. I am sure that many a burly ex-trawlerman would not take kindly to that type of groan from him. This is a serious issue, because these people lost their livelihoods as a
result of a Government decision at the end of the cod wars to refuse the generous quotas being offered by Iceland; their fishing grounds were no longer available to them, they came home to port and they had no livelihood. For years, they campaigned for compensation, and it was only in the late 1990s that that was agreed. Our community greeted that news with great delight. My father was in Iceland at the time as a member of the Royal Navy, doing fishing protection work rather than as a trawlerman. Sadly he is no longer with us, but he always used to say that it was a great injustice that the trawlermen had not received any compensation.
The scheme was introduced and people were paid up to £20,000, but there was a serious loophole. None of the experts or the people on the ground in our community noticed it, but it meant that some people were paid nothing or had their compensation substantially reduced because of what are called breaks in service. If people had a break of a certain number of weeks in a long career, they lost compensation. The scheme was probably set up like that in an attempt to copy the redundancy rules, under which if people work in a factory for 10 years, leave for three months and then come back, they have broken the continuity of employment. But of course in the fishing industry the labour was pooled, and people were given a ship if one was available, so it was a fragmented way of working. Someone might get a job, go away for a few weeks, come back and be off for some weeks. That meant that some people were excluded from the compensation scheme.
We have recently had some success in addressing that problem, and the Government have amended the original scheme to try to put right that injustice. However, we think that we have found another flaw in the system. I hope that we do not go ahead with the rules for additional payments with that flaw. The problem is that the new rules propose that the only people who will be eligible for the compensation are those who applied under the original scheme in 2000. If people applied and they received no compensation or a substantially reduced amount, their cases can be reconsidered. However, in Grimsby the local authority funded some advice workers to help the former trawlermen with their applications, and they told some of the potential applicants not to bother applying because they would not qualify under the rules. So those ex-trawlermen never applied. Only those who applied at the time will be eligible. I hope that that issue will be addressed, because it would be a gross injustice if the new schemewhich was meant to put right an injusticeexcluded those people.
The consultation on the scheme still has a few more weeks to run, and I recently had a marvellous meeting with more than 100 former trawlermen to involve them in that consultation. We held the meeting in the national fishing heritage centre in Grimsby, which is a marvellous little museum, and we were able to introduce the men and their families to what is, in effect, their centre. Many of them had not been using the centre. In a lovely gesture by the centre, which also gave me the use of the facilities for free, all the former trawlermen who came that day have been given a free pass to the centre so that they can bring their grandchildren and other relatives and show them what it was like in that industry, which created the great port of GrimsbyGrimsby fish is still known around the world.
My next point is to do with a consultation, again. People will begin to see why I am raising all these subjects todaya feeling of inertia arises when consultations are under way, and when people do not have the answers and cannot move forward until they get them. This consultation concerns the siting of Travellers sites in North Lincolnshire, one of the two local authorities that cover my constituency. There has been quite extensive consultation, which is now closed, and I submitted comments on behalf of my residents. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) also commented on the proposals. Of course, we are left not knowing what the result will be or when we will find it out. We need to consider that fact when we have consultation processes or public inquiries. It is all very well to have a statutory consultation periodfine, we can all work with thatbut why is there no statutory period in which we have to be told the outcome? That would be my plea, as it would give people certainty that they will get their answers.
I now want to talk a little about school meals in north Lincolnshire, in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes areas. I have campaigned for a number of years to improve school meals. One of my grandmothers was a school cook, who cooked marvellous food. My father was a cook in the Navy, so that is something that is clearly in the McIsaac family blood. We like our food, we like to cook and we want to ensure that everybody else enjoys good food, too.
I have campaigned to improve school meals in north-east Lincolnshire. Sadly, several years ago the council let schools decide whether to keep kitchens or to get rid of them. A number of schools got rid of their kitchens and offered sandwich options or baked potatoes. I campaigned with parents, with the schools and so on, and took the issue up with Ministers. Everybody has been very supportive of the idea of introducing the improvements. Ministers have been marvellous and listened to the case that we presented for funding to bring back the kitchens and put good food back on the menus.
I do not have any problems with that, but then things became absolutely ludicrous. After all those years of campaigning, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that they were going to be running pilot schemes for free school meals for all primary age children. I thought, Hallelujah! That is exactly what I have been campaigning on for a number of years. In the current economic climate any saving, even a saving of this nature, will be a real bonus for families. North East Lincolnshire council was invited to be one of those that ran the pilots, but it said, No. The schools say that they would love the scheme, the parents support the idea and the Members of Parliament think that it would be a good idea, but the council says that it does not have enough money, because the scheme is match funded.
Ideally, I would like the Government to consider running some pilot projects that are not match funded, as that would help councils that find themselves in financial difficulty. My North East Lincolnshire county council is in that position: it was one of the negligent authorities that lost £7 million when it invested that amount in Icelandic banks just days before the collapse.
I am told that that loss has had no impact on the councils decision not to produce the match funding that would ensure free meals for primary school age
children. However, the council has other investments and the money is there, so I do not understand its approach. I hope that the Department for Children, Schools and Families can do something to help, either by setting up a fully funded pilot or simply by telling the council to get its act together.
I want to speak about a couple of other subjects, and the first is ministerial correspondence. I shall not name the Department or the particular Minister involved, but I am getting heartily fed up of sending almost fortnightly reminders, especially given that it can take nearly four months to get a reply to my original letter. That is not acceptable. I keep apologising to constituents and telling them, Sorry, the Minister hasnt replied yet and, yes, we are reminding him, but nothing happens. I also do the other normal things, such as putting down parliamentary questions asking when to expect replies to correspondence dated X, Y and Z, and I get the usual little letter that appears in response, but it is never just a one-off. With some Departments, the process is continuous, and that is wholly unacceptable.
Another problem is that the quality of the response often leaves a lot to be desired, even when I am writing on behalf of pensioners. For example, I once wrote to a Minister about illiteracy and adult literacy, and all I got was a very short reply to the effect that the information that I needed could be found by clicking on a website. I am sorry, but that is not good enough. It is not the sort of response that we should be sending out to constituents. [ Interruption. ] I can see that the gods of democracythat is, the Whipson the Front Bench are giving me the evil eye. That probably means that the Chancellor can now come to the Chamber to make his statement. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is eager to take part in the debate as well, and I will not deny him his chance.
Finally, I want to talk about circuses. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) mentioned certain animal welfare issues, and my constituents are not particularly happy that a circus will be coming to Cleethorpes over Easter. There are always protests, and allegations of cruelty to the animals. I believe that the circus has managed to get hold of some elephants this year, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe spoke about this circus when it visited his constituency some weeks ago.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, I was a member of the Committee considering the Bill that became the Animal Welfare Act 2006. My memory may be affected by ageit is my birthday tomorrow, so there is another year to add onbut, unless it has gone completely, I seem to recall that the Government said that regulations or something would be brought forward to stop the exploitation of performing animals in circuses. Years later, however, the circus is still trundling up every year. The animals are still there and every year there are allegations of cruelty. In this day and age, surely we can resolve the issue once and for all. That type of entertainment belongs in the past.
With that, I wish everybody a wonderful Easter break. I am not in competition with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) in this Adjournment debate. She always extols the virtues of her constituency and invites Members to spend some of their holiday there. Tiverton is lovelymy great-granny was from there. I have no qualms about people going to
Tiverton, but I invite Members to the Lincolnshire coast, to see Cleethorpes and the wonderful delights of that part of the countrybut not the circus.
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