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I was just about to refer to the hon. Gentleman. I shall do so first, and then give way to him. Earlier, he gave examples of the unaccountability of so much of the health service to local needs. Some local
health services are very good indeed, and they do listen to local people. Others, however, are hopeless and simply could not care less about whether the service that they provide suits the local community. All that concerns them is that they tick the boxes specified by the Government and, again, that cannot be right.
Mr. Horam: The hon. Gentleman is right that there is great lack of consultation in the health service, but the other example that I would give to back up the point that he is making is the Governments remarkable plan to close a large number of jobcentres just when unemployment is rising. It is astonishing, and my own town of Orpington has been badly hit by the closure of the jobcentre there. The Government did not think ahead. The jobcentre in Bromley, which people all have to go to now, does not have enough chairs or enough toiletsenough of anythingto cope with all the extra people who are going there, despite the fact that notice was given two years ago that this might happen.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman has heard me speak at length about the roads in my constituency, and I will not go through them all now; but let me mention one, which provides a clear example of lack of understanding. Until a little while ago the A303, which some Members know, was termed the second strategic route to the south-west. It is the alternative to the M4-M5 corridor. Somebody, somewhere, decided that it should no longer be the second strategic route to the south-west, so in the south-west regional spatial strategy it is downgraded to a road of regional significance. It carries an enormous amount of trafficnot least the holidaymakers trying to make their way to the south-west peninsula each yearbut because of that downgrading it will not get the improvements that it needs, which were promised over 12 years ago. It will not get the dualling that was required to make it effective and safe because somebody, somewherenot the local council, not even the Secretary of Statehas decided at a stroke of a pen, that to downgrade the main road to the west country. That is simply unacceptable.
I have done my best for the road in recent years. I have repeatedly stated the need for these improvements, but my voice is not heard in this place by Ministersby the people who take decisionsbecause there is somebody out there who is unaccountable, who says, Oh no, Minister. I dont think we need to worry about this. This isnt a priority. Well, it is a priority; it is a priority for my constituents, and they expect people to hear what they say.
I do not want to go any further on this subject. I simply say that we need a massive programme of reformof democratic renewal. We really need a crusade that makes people understand that actually democracy is precious, and that we are in danger of losing our credentials as a democratic nation simply because people no longer have any confidence in the system. It starts in this placegetting this place right, getting it working. Then, it must apply to our wider constitutionmaking that
more effective. It must then widen to empower the individualit is a cant phrase, but a necessary phraseso that they know that their voice is heard, that they have a mechanism by which they can articulate their hopes and fears, and that somebody will listen. At the moment they believe nobody is listening, and that is what is wrong with our democratic processes.
The island suffered a terrible blow last month. The UKs only wind turbine blade manufacturer, Vestas, made the decision to close its plant on the island. That has led to the loss of 600 skilled jobs. The pull-out could also cost the island potential jobs, as Vestas was planning to expand its operation into a new site at Newport.
The island has relatively high unemployment, so this is especially bad news during a recession. It is a personal tragedy for the skilled staff who are losing their jobs. It is just as much a tragedy for the islands economy. It is also a blow for the emerging market in renewable energies in the UK. The whole affair rather spoils the Governments energy strategy, which aims to
provide more support for low-carbon technologies.
Vestas proposes to move manufacturing of its turbine blades to the United States of America and China, where, of course, it would be carried out at a lower price. The Government have failed to ensure the right conditions for investment in renewable energy. They have also failed to protect the whole economy from the worst effects of the recession.
Vestas has since said that it may reopen a manufacturing plant in the UK somewhere, sometime in the future. I fear it may be too late for those losing their jobs on the island. I hope that the economy recovers swiftly, and that skilled jobs return to the island. Meanwhile, 600 islanders and their families face a bleak future.
A subject that has been causing concern to farmers on the island is the disposal of fallen stock. The island does not have facilities to incinerate fallen stock, which is, I understand, the preferred method. Since 2003, the Isle of Wight has not been covered by the national fallen stock scheme. As the name suggests, the scheme facilitates the safe disposal of fallen stock. During that period, with the approval of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but without derogation, farmers on the Isle of Wight were unofficially allowed to bury fallen stock on their land. That practice, however, was not in compliance with DEFRA regulations, leaving island farmers in a vulnerable position.
One woman was taken to court for burying fallen stock. She was subsequently found not guilty when it became clear that the unofficial derogation was not legal. That led to a hiatus of around three weeks, when burial was suspended. Since the changes to the rules earlier this year, Ministers agreed to award the island official derogation. That allows farmers to continue the practice of burying fallen stock on their property. However, it is not a long-term solution. DEFRAs own website explains that
the degradation process to ensure the reduction of BSE/TSE infectivity cannot be guaranteed by burial.
I am also concerned by the concept of fallen stock being buried near local water sources, for obvious reasons. In addition, there is the likelihood that the unpleasant sight of dead animals being buried may be seen by holidaymakers out in the countryside.
Ideally, this hazardous waste should be incinerated as soon as possible. DEFRA regulation states that the owner of the carcase is responsible for its disposal. I am reliably informed that the cost to ship one fallen bovine to the mainland for incineration is around £450. Clearly, the cost is prohibitive to the average farmer. There needs to be a long-term, safe and sustainable solution. I am no specialist in the matter, but I know that burial should not continue indefinitely.
As Members may be aware, I campaigned for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the three car ferry services to and from the islandthose being Ryde to Portsmouth, Southampton to East Cowes, and Lymington to Yarmouthand passenger ferries. There has not been an investigation of its kind for almost 20 years. The results of that investigation are due any time now. I, and I am sure my south coast colleagues and, of course, residents of the island, will read the findings with great interest.
Finally, I should like to say something about hospital waiting lists in the Isle of Wight primary care trust and on the mainland. One consequence of waiting excessive periods for the treatment of illness or injury can be an increased risk of defaulting on a mortgage, failing to meet the rent or even unemployment. Such worries are of particular concern during a recession.
Of course, for sufferers, the most pressing aspect of long hospital waiting lists is the physical and psychological discomfort that the delays exacerbate. In the past few months, I have noticed a steady stream of constituents coming to me with stories of long periods between diagnosis, referral and treatment. One constituent in his 40s is suffering from kidney stones, and has been left in agony, and out of action, for weeks with no date for an operation. Needless to say, that is putting his business at risk and seriously degrading his quality of life. Another, a widow in her late 70s who suffers pain while eating and swallowing, has been left for almost 26 weeksthat is, six monthswithout treatment. The recognised period between referral and treatment on the island should not be more than 18 weeks.
Another constituent, suffering from serious back problems, was referred to a hospital on the mainland and was made to wait for months for a scan after the first was cancelled. Yet another constituent, again in his 40s, is suffering from a back problem, and has been bounced from one hospital to another on the mainland, with long gaps between referrals. He has had to chase up most of his appointments, and feels like he has been lost in the system. His job, too, is under threat because of the delay in receiving treatment. Those individual cases paint a wider, rather grim picture. We really need to know whether there are significant numbers of cases in which a significant amount of time is wasted. I hope that the position can be improved. In the meantime, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Opposition and even the Government a very happy and pleasant weeks holiday.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Leader of Her Majestys official Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), came to my constituency on 27 April. The roadshow billed as Cameron Direct rolled into Colchester, stayed about an hour and then rolled on, the 28th stop of his national tour over. Admission to hear him was by ticket only, not for reasons of popularity, with a sell-out expected, but to keep out those who were not of the faith. I am glad that he came, and I am particularly grateful to him for publicly endorsing what the Conservatives are doing locally. That will boost the electoral fortunes of my party.
Colchester is the only part of Essex that does not have a Tory council. I had hoped that the Leader of the Opposition would listen to local people on the biggest local issues in the town, but he did not. I hoped that he would persuade the county Tories that they were wrong, but he did not. The real losers in all that are not the Conservatives, although that would be a welcome by-product, but the people whom I have the honour of representing. Like it or not, national and local politics are part of the same fabric. They are interwoven. National decisions and policies affect local decisions and policies. Of course we must try to separate the two as much as we can, but the realities of life, so far as the Conservative party is concerned, were confirmed by the Cameron Direct visit to Colchester.
Actually, I quite like the right hon. Gentleman as a person. We are on first-name terms. That dates back to when we served together on the Home Affairs Committee, notably on our inquiry into drugs. His views on the subject were far more liberal than mine, as the official record confirms. It also goes back to when, along with the shadow Chancellor, we met regularly in the mornings, here in the House of Commons, to discuss the issues of the day. Indeed, I recall providing helpful advice and encouragement to the right hon. Member for Witney when he decided to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party.
One of the great delights of this place is the Members bathroom, which is best described as a posh version of a typical sports changing room. It has a communal area, but separate baths and showers. It was here that we exchanged banter and political observations. Two of the policies that I suggested to the right hon. Gentleman as part of what he billed as his compassionate Conservative agenda have been adopted by him, although he has never given me the credit. Sadly, since his elevation to party leader, both he and his shadow Chancellor have stopped that early-morning visitation to the Members bathroom; presumably, they have even grander surroundings to go to.
It was thus in a spirit of comradeship that I sent the leader of the Conservative party a briefing about the political situation in Colchester. I sensed that perhaps the local Tories would not be frank about how, in May last year, against the national tide of Conservative victories, they managed to lose five seats on Colchester borough council and, with them, control of the councilthe only place in the east of England where such a disaster for the Tories occurred. The huge rejection of the Tories in Colchester was due not to national issues but to local ones; I thought it would be helpful if I explained that to the right hon. Gentleman. He subsequently thanked me. Unfortunately, he ignored my helpful briefing, and
endorsed the very policies that last year saw his party humiliated in Colchester. The front-page headline in the following days Colchester Gazette read: David supports school closure scheme. That is very helpful to my party, but a huge disappointment to the people of Colchester who are overwhelmingly opposedthe figure is 96 per cent., according to Essex county councils own consultationto the closure of two secondary schools in my town and the reconfiguration of the five that remain, all of which will have to expand dramatically. The whole so-called public consultation was a farce.
It is not only the people of Colchester whom the Leader of the Opposition let down by backing the plans of his Tory chums on the county council. The leader of that council, Lord Hanningfield, is one of his Front-Bench spokesmen in the House of Lords. Every Conservative borough councillor in Colchester is opposed to what their Conservative colleagues at county hall are proposing. There is a massive split in the Tory party in that part of Essex. Instead of backing the people of Colchester, however, the Leader of the Opposition chose to support the county Tories, based 30 miles away in Chelmsford.
Colchester is one of the fastest-growing areas in Britain. In terms of population, it is the countrys second-largest borough, with some 175,000 residents. There are many unitary councils with a smaller population. If Colchester had a unitary council, the two secondary schoolsAlderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audleywould not be shutting. The borough council proposed alternative measures that would have meant retaining both schools. At Decembers borough council meeting, not a single Tory councillor backed both closures; they proposed a merger with a new academy on a new site, but at least they recognised that there needed to be a secondary school somewhere in the south of the town, where more than 2,000 new houses are being built on the site of the former Colchester garrison. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), some of whose constituents go to Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley, also supported the concept of a merger and an academy.
Bob Russell: I have just praised the hon. Member for North Essex. We are united in opposition to Essex county councils proposals to shut the two schools; we just have a difference of opinion on how we should go forward. There is a world of difference between praising a Member and criticising him.
The majority on the council were in favour of what became known as option 4the federation of the two schools with the Stanway school, under the executive headship of the inspirational Mr. Jonathan Tippett, who is already in overall charge of the three schools, and who has produced impressive outcomes since he took the helm of all three. A local solution for a local situationsomething, one would have thought, that fitted the Tory agenda of so-called localism, of giving more powers to schools and heads, and of removing the dead hand of education authorities and officials. The reality, as demonstrated by the overbearing arrogance of county halls leadership, is somewhat different. The
county councils own consultation revealed that 96 per cent. of people opposed its proposals, but when the remote county Conservatives, only one of whom lives in my constituency, sought to justify what they were doing, they dismissed that. They said that that was not representative of the silent majority. That is the language of those who lead despotic regimes.
The Leader of Her Majestys Opposition knows that those who run Essex in the name of his party do his party an ill service, yet he has chosen to ignore it. As was reported in the Colchester Gazette, he told the Colchester audience:
It has to be up to the county council and people in Colchester to decide.
The people of Colchester have, at every opportunity, opposed the closure of the two schools; notably, its 60 borough councillors oppose it, too. The rhetoric of Cameron Direct is different to the reality of what his party in Essex is doing 30 miles away at county hall.
Until May last year, the proposal from Essex county council was to close both Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools, and create an academy for the whole of south Colchester on the TLA site. County officials gave compelling reasons why that should happen, and successive education portfolio holders argued that it was the only way forward. The local community disagreed, and I pursued the matter at parliamentary level. The case against the county proposals was overwhelming.
Essex county council has explained that its preferred approach is to build on the existing partnership with Stanway school and to pursue a trust. We will support the council in its decision, but only as long as there is genuine improvement in all three schools.[ Official Report, 19 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 3.]
There has been genuine improvement: Thomas Lord Audley has achieved its best results in 50 years, exceeding the target of 30 per cent. GCSEs at grades A to C, and Alderman Blaxill has come out of special measures. On 20 May 2008, I had a meeting with the Minister for Schools and Learners, his officials and representatives from the Colchester community. The Minister sought confirmation from officials of how the Secretary of States announcement could be taken forward. We were told that this could be done by the autumn, given good will all round.
Sadly, that was not to be. Clearly angered by what had happened, Lord Hanningfield, in addition to being a shadow Minister in the other place and leader of Essex county council, took over the education portfolio insofar as it related to Colchester, and has personally driven an agenda to close not one but both schools. His costly vendetta will result in millions of pounds of public money being spent on new building projects, rather than money being invested in the existing buildings in the communities where the children live. Children will be bussed out of their communities, and there will be a reduction in parental choice.
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