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County officials, who only weeks earlier were arguing one thing with professional passion were told what Lord Hanningfield wanted. To their lasting shame, they have concocted a case, made up as they went along, to seek to justify closing both Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools. I call on the Secretary of
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State for Children, Schools and Families to honour what he told the House on 19 May last year: he spoke in good faith, and what he said was clearly based on what his officials had been told by Essex county council. The Deputy Leader of the House will understand that that would be in accordance with Government policies on sustainable communities, safe routes to schools, and Every Child Matters. It would also be less costly to the public purse, and provide real value for money.

The proposals to shut two schools in my constituency were not the only reason why the Conservatives did so badly at the ballot box in May last year; another was their general financial incompetence at the town hall. They put £12 million into Icelandic banks. The new administration, led by the Liberal Democrats supported by Labour and Independents, got that down to £4 million before the Icelandic banks crashed—thank goodness it was not the £12 million that the Tories had put there. Then there was the matter of the £6 million pay-off to a private housing maintenance firm, which the new administration inherited from the Conservatives.

In the eyes of the public, however—and this is where national politics blends with local politics—the single most important issue of financial shambles which really angered the good people of Colchester was the folly of an unwanted art gallery that has been foisted on the town, even though people overwhelmingly did not want it. The original cost was put at £16 million. The gallery is now two years late, all work has stopped—again—and the cost has soared to £25 million. The visual arts facility, to give it its official name, has been funded primarily by the national taxpayer, with the largest sums coming from Arts Council England, East and the East of England Development Agency. Essex county council is a major player, too, with Lord Hanningfield personally driving the agenda from county hall. Colchester borough council’s capital financial contribution is smaller, but at about £3.5 million, it is still a sum that Colchester residents would have preferred to spend on other things, such as upgrading the bus station, which was closed by the previous Tory council to provide a site for the visual arts facility.

It has been revealed that, although there is sufficient land for the bus station to be repositioned, the previous Conservative borough and county administrations entered into an agreement to prevent that from happening. I have been told, however, that the details cannot be published because of commercial confidentiality. How can it be commercially confidential, if two local councils are involved? The estimated annual revenue subsidy that the new arts venue will require has been put at £600,000 from the public purse, of which £300,000 will come from council tax payers. A major feature of the VAF will be the display of contemporary Latin American art. It is worth observing that Arts Council England is planning to spend more money on contemporary Latin American art than it does on promoting England’s traditional folk culture. Surely Arts Council England should put our national heritage before modern art from south America.

The past two weeks have been the worst I have ever known for MPs—we have all been tarred with the same brush. Although it is clearly unfair, that is life, and we have to put up with it, right or wrong. What is not
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acceptable, however, is the abusive phone calls that Members’ staff have received. My office has received only a couple of such phone calls—there have also been three abusive e-mails—but I am aware that for the staff of some MPs it has been a very nasty ordeal. I therefore wish to place on record my appreciation to all staff—not just the staff in my office—and register my regret that some people have been abusive to them.

There are, of course, two Houses of Parliament. Yesterday, in the other place, two peers were suspended for serious misconduct. One of them, Lord Truscott, used to be a Labour councillor and organiser in Colchester. The regulations in the Commons have been found wanting, and have been exposed over the past fortnight. However, I suggest that the public want a complete overhaul of both Houses of Parliament, not just the Commons. For the financial year 2007-08, a total of £25,654 in overnight and day subsistence was claimed by Lord Hanningfield, which is more than the highest claim made by any MP. The official records show that Lord Hanningfield attended on 120 days out of the 164 for which the House of Lords sat, although he was present for only 29—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has informed the Member of the other place what he is about to do in going into the details.

Bob Russell: I have not done so, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am reading from official records.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I do not doubt where the information has been obtained, but I wonder whether, in fact, the hon. Gentleman has advised the Member of the other place that he is going to quote it.

Bob Russell: I have not done so, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was aware only of the fact that we have to inform Members of the Commons. If I am not allowed to read from the official records from the other place, I will obviously abide by your ruling. However, these details are all on the record.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I do understand that the hon. Gentleman is quoting information on the record, but in reflecting on the conduct of a Member of another place, it might be appropriate to inform them.

Bob Russell: I accept your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will seek an Adjournment debate so that I can put the matter on the record. I will inform the noble Lord of the matters, which are in the public domain and which I have sought to draw to the attention of the House because they are of interest. I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall therefore conclude my speech.

1.58 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): There are a few matters relating to my constituency that I wish to address. Before I do so, however, as a new Member who joined the House in 2005, I want to say how shocked I am by the way in which Parliament works, and how democracy is often thwarted here, rather than advanced. Perhaps I was simply naive before I came here and knew very little of politics so did not
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see the reality, but I hoped that my belief that the House was the seat of people who come here to stand up for things and fight for truth and justice was right. Like everyone else, I have been horrified by the revelations over the past few weeks, but if there is any silver lining, it is that it sometimes takes something of seismic proportions to shake the corridors of history in Parliament and to change things for the better. I hope that all hon. Members—and I was listening to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who made a good contribution—will consider how the House must handle the future so that we can regain the trust and confidence of our constituents. I was very proud and privileged to become a Member of Parliament, and I hope to feel that way again very soon.

With regard to the fair funding of schools in my constituency, if I say that per pupil Hackney receives £6,170, Camden £6,161, Islington £5,812 and Haringey £4,987, the House will realise that the children in my constituency receive more than £1,000 less, which is £32 million less per year. Because Hornsey and Wood Green has all the characteristics of those three inner-London boroughs, it has to pay its staff inner-London salary rates, which are much higher than the outer-London rates that it receives, and that is unfair. Children face being taught in larger classes and schools have difficulty in obtaining teachers and equipment, and that has a deleterious effect. I have raised this in Prime Minister’s questions and he was kind enough to acknowledge that that was an anomaly, and I have met the Minister for Schools and Learners twice. A review is under way that will report in 2011, on which I have been refused a representative to make the case for Haringey, and I have received no assurance of any day of reckoning that will reckon in a way that I might wish to see it reckoned. Today I bring to the House another request that the children in Hornsey and Wood Green should not continue to receive £1,000 less per head than neighbouring boroughs when we face some of the worst poverty and deprivation in the country and when we have for so long received so much less than comparable boroughs.

I have lost five sub-post offices in my constituency and since those closures the queues have grown horrendously. People have to wait up to 50 minutes and the average wait is 12 minutes, which is quite a long time given that it includes those occasions when there is no waiting time at all. I have been working with the Crown post office in Muswell Hill, which has put every effort into reducing its very long queues, and by adopting queue management techniques and other methods it has managed to reduce the waiting time to three minutes. Highgate used to have two sub-post offices, one at the top of the hill in Highgate village and one at the bottom by Highgate station. The one in Highgate village was closed, making it difficult for older people and parents with buggies to get to the other one. People who receive those little slips saying that the postman tried to deliver something while they were out, which is a great nuisance but it happens to all of us, have to go to the Highgate station office, which is always impossibly busy, and if they go at 12 noon on a Saturday when everyone who works during the week goes, the queues extend out into the street and are incredibly long. I am sorry—but not that sorry—to have to pillory that office in the Chamber, but it is a small, dirty, badly kept sub-post office where it is incredibly unpleasant for people to wait, and it is far too small to cope with the overspill that has resulted
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from the closure of the other office in Highgate village. There has been a devastating knock-on effect from the closures. I should like the Government to reconsider this and to re-open the Highgate village office, so that the elderly, home workers and mothers with buggies, who are all having a difficult time, do not have to queue for the length of time that they do currently. That goes for Alexandra post office too.

I come now to one of the most serious issues that has arisen in my borough during the last year, and that is the tragedy of baby P, an issue on which I have spoken in the House a number of times, but I wish to raise it again. As the lead agency and the most to blame, Haringey council was rightly the first in line to get it most fiercely in the neck, and the consequences of that are well know through the media. There have been a number of sackings and a great revolution with the bringing in of a new director of children’s services and new systems.

In the last few weeks attention has been drawn to the health services, which I have sought to raise and put on the radar. I have always felt that the children’s health services that led to the tragedy were a mirror image of what went on in Haringey council. In the last few weeks, the investigative journalist, Andrew Gilligan, from the Evening Standard has exposed the failings within Haringey PCT and Great Ormond Street hospital. I have raised this matter in the House before, but it did not receive the same attention then that it did when it appeared in the Evening Standard. Four paediatric consultants worked in the children’s health services, which were commissioned by the PCT to Great Ormond Street, and I had often wondered why there was a locum. On inquiring, I found that since 2006, of the four consultant paediatricians, two had resigned, one was off sick and one was on special leave, so the locum, who so famously failed to recognise the broken back and ribs, was incredibly overworked. That is no excuse; obviously she was a dreadful doctor to miss such serious injuries. Nevertheless, that makes one think. What has been exposed in the past couple of weeks in the Evening Standard includes the staffing shortages, which rather than being addressed have been denied by Great Ormond Street.

Unfortunately, one of the results of the righteous indignation of the nation over Members’ expenses is that those very important stories have not resulted in pressure being applied to the NHS management that I might have wished, but it is now carrying out a proper investigation into what was going on in health services.

The spotlight passes from one agency to another and I am still pursuing a public inquiry because many issues have not yet received the full glare of public scrutiny. I have campaigned for the publication of serious case reviews. It is such secrecy that has kept events under the radar. When concerns are raised, whether by politicians, whistleblowers or whomever, ranks are closed and secrets are kept, and the only victims are the children whose problems are not resolved, while the defensive nature of such agencies is turned on the bringer of bad news. The baby P tragedy is the tip of the iceberg because of all the cases beneath the radar that never receive such publicity.

We also need a public inquiry to look into what part the budget played. Ofsted has almost got away scot-free, yet it was Ofsted that gave Haringey a clean bill of health with a three-star rating while all this was going on. When the Secretary of State for Children, Schools
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and Families instructed it to go in again, it gave a one-star rating. Something is going on. Inspection agencies must be pure and above board and not be influenced in any way by the political situation or governance. There are issues around whistleblowing, secrecy, gagging orders, the budget and opposition politics. What should someone in a responsible position in a borough such as Haringey do if they cannot get any of the scrutiny processes to take on board an examination of child protection in the borough? Famously, Sharon Shoesmith told the overview and scrutiny committee, “My department is not in need of any scrutiny. I commend it to you.” We know what happened shortly after that, so a mechanism that triggers an early intervention must be introduced to the political process, too. There is no use in being so defensive. The argument follows on from what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said: we must get all our processes right. The issue is not just about the House or expenses; it is about how we do politics. So I am still campaigning for a public inquiry.

I shall briefly touch on another issue on which I have campaigned. Will Pike, a British citizen, was hideously injured as he tried to escape the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Terrorists were walking up and down the corridors in his hotel in Mumbai, looking for British and American citizens to kill. As far as the terrorists were concerned, it was a war. Mr. Pike escaped by climbing out of a window, but the sheets that he had tied together broke and he fell. He will be paralysed and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His father is a constituent of mine, and I am working with him.

The expenses furore also hid a story in the news about the campaign to secure compensation in this country for British citizens who are injured in terrorist attacks abroad. If one is injured in this country by a terrorist attack, one is entitled to compensation, and our argument is that if it happens to someone somewhere else in the world, they are still our responsibility and we have a moral obligation to ensure that they come home and are looked after. I have asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister, but I have not had a reply yet. If I do not get one soon, I am going to contact Joanna Lumley to help me. [ Laughter. ] Well, she seems to work the miracles!

I shall briefly touch also on mental health issues in my constituency. St. Ann’s hospital is our local mental health institution, and it has been consulting on closing one of its in-stay wards. We do not have the capacity to cope with the number of people who need admission to mental hospitals, and I met a series of service users who are absolutely desperate, because their loved ones need to go into hospital, but they cannot get in. When I brought all their considerations and problems to the attention of the management, I was told, “We’re going to improve care in the community. We will put in the underpinning and enable them to live in their own homes, because, of course, it would be preferable for them to live in their homes.”

However, such consultations ask people whether they agree with the principle, “Is it better if you can keep someone in their own home?” The same philosophy exists for older people. In principle, if the safety net were gold-plated and one could be sure that people would be looked after properly, having not just their medical health and mental health needs attended to, but
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their socialisation needs, one might be tempted to agree. However, the reality in Haringey and Hornsey and Wood Green falls far short of what people would need if such services were to exist, and I am scared that the process will go ahead regardless.

The consultation has nothing to do with the real needs and desperate situations of those people and their families. I wanted to bring the issue to the Government’s attention, because I am sure that Hornsey and Wood Green is not the only place in which mental health facilities are not adequate to cope with the great needs that people have. I want to get that point on the record, so that Barnet, Enfield and Haringey mental health trust sees what I have said about it, stops consulting, just listens and, I guess, does what I say.

My speech is a whistle-stop tour, but my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that that was what one did in an Adjournment debate.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): What does he know?

Lynne Featherstone: He knows everything. I go to him for advice; he is very wise Member.

Mr. Vara: That is what he tells you.

Lynne Featherstone: That is what he tells me, and I believe him.

I shall turn to the middle east, because the heart of the Stop the War movement is in my constituency. It was born in Muswell Hill, and it is a very powerful movement. There is also a reasonably large—not huge, but sizeable—Jewish population in my constituency. I am constantly lobbied by pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis to take their sides, but I have always held the view that there is only one solution: to move forward and go for a two-state solution. The blame for past events—who did what—gets us nowhere. If I have learned one thing from watching events in Northern Ireland, it is that the only way is forward. We can go as far back in history as we like, and one side or the other will have done something dreadful. However, both will have been at fault.

I went to Israel and the west bank when I was shadow Secretary of State for International Development, and people there want peace and need their leaders to lead them to peace. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that there should be a regional solution; I do not see how we can solve it without having the key players at the table. However, the Government seem to go quiet when there is nothing immediate in the news. During the Gaza war, we were jumping up every day to discuss such matters, but now that the war is over, things have gone very quiet. I am sure that the Minister will assure me that things are going on all the time which are not reported, but I am anxious that not enough goes on when the issue leaves the media headlines. The blockades that prevent food and aid from entering Palestine are a humanitarian issue and should not be a political issue. I therefore simply call on the Government to move the agenda forward, not to go sotto voce, and to keep the issue at the top of the agenda. Only peace in the middle east will bring peace to the wider world, and then I would not have to stand here begging for compensation for constituents when they are victims of terrorist attacks abroad.

Lastly but not leastly—

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Chris Bryant: Leastly?

Lynne Featherstone: Okay, sorry. Last but not least, I shall turn to beer tax. I simply want to say that we all like going to the pub. I certainly like going there, even more in times of depression. I have been there quite a few times recently.

Chris Bryant: The pub or depression?

Lynne Featherstone: Both.

The above-inflation increases in duty on beer are crippling local pubs, but they are the heart of our community. I must declare an interest, because my constituency office is on the first floor of a pub called the Three Compasses, on High street, Hornsey. It is a very good place to have a constituency office. It is secure, because I am not alone—people are there until late at night, so to speak.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) gave you rubbish advice.

Lynne Featherstone: Did he? Well, anyway, the British Beer and Pub Association said that 2,000 pubs closed last year. Tax is 33.5 per cent. of the price of a pint of beer and drinking is lawful. I simply call for a fair tax. I do not want to see that mainstay of British society, the pub, go out of existence.

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