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2.18 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): Before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, I wish to raise a number of points. When I spoke in the Easter Adjournment debate, I said then that it would be the last Easter Adjournment debate before we had a general election, and, obviously, this will be our last Whitsun Adjournment debate before a general election. Much has happened since Easter, and we have only to look at the Chamber at the moment to see that all is not well with the House.

Before my party leader called for an election, I felt that the paralysis that we in Parliament are suffering from was simply not tenable. I cannot conceive how the House can limp along—with little or no business at all and Members, for whatever reason, feeling more and more disillusioned and stressed—until April next year. Without being political, I should say that the country needs to be governed and the House needs to address very serious issues at the moment. For all sorts of reasons, I doubt whether Members can concentrate their minds fully on those issues. That is why we need a fresh mandate. Furthermore, given Mr. Speaker’s decision to stand down, it is right that a new Parliament, with some new Members, should elect a new Speaker.

I want to say something about expenses. When I was first elected to the House in 1983, it sat for five days a week; we were always here on Fridays. The first Bill on which I sat in Committee was the Rates Bill. Members may be appalled or they may laugh, but one of our sittings lasted 48 hours. It is always fine to be wise with hindsight, but the time to change the arrangements on second homes was probably when the House changed the hours that we sit and how we work. In those early days, I represented Basildon, which was even nearer this place than Southend, West, but I could not get home to my constituency at 3, 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. With hindsight, I wish that I and others had spoken up
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when we decided to change our working hours and that we had dealt with the issue then. It is a sorry state of affairs, and I cannot see how we can continue in this way until April next year.

I apologise for having been late to the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker; I had given Mr. Speaker notice of that. I was at Westminster cathedral for the installation of the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols. I took the right decision in leaving halfway through, because the two-and-a-half-hour service does not end until 2.30. It was a privilege to be in a packed church. Throughout his nine years as cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has done a splendid job given all the difficulties faced by any Church at the moment.

Sometimes I am guilty of nodding off during a priest’s sermon, but I listened carefully to the sermon given by the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols. His message was that we should listen to one another; I do not know whether that always happens in this place, but his message was to a wider audience. He also spoke about faith schools, an issue that the House has considered. Furthermore, he said that just because people have strong views on certain issues, they should not simply be derided as bigots. His message was strong.

Recently, I made a small contribution to The Tablet, in which I said:

that is, the new cardinal—

I am sure that I speak for most fair-minded women and men in the House in wishing the new cardinal well with the challenges ahead.

Chris Bryant: I hate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols is not the new cardinal; Cormac Murphy-O’Connor remains the cardinal. The hon. Gentleman is wishing the new Archbishop of Westminster well.

Mr. Amess: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I think that the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols will become the cardinal. [Interruption.] I am chair of the all-party group on the Holy See, and I had a word with the Pope during my audience with him last year; I have it on good authority that the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols may become cardinal. Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is looking forward to a happy retirement. The Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols is the 11th Archbishop of Westminster to be installed. The irony is that this is the first time ever that a cardinal has been given the opportunity to retire; all the rest died in office. We wish Cormac Murphy-O’Connor a long and happy retirement.

Apart from expenses, the biggest issue in my constituency is that of the proposed expansion of Southend airport. In all my time here, I have never had as many individual, handwritten letters from constituents as I have on that issue. We all get petitions signed by Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria, and people run off photocopies of petitions for us to sign. However, I am talking about individual, handwritten letters, not just e-mails. It is
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obvious that residents of Southend, West are very exercised by the airport issue. It would be helpful if the Deputy Leader of the House—perhaps not this afternoon, but in time—asked the appropriate Department to reflect on what I am going to say.

The consultation period finished on 15 May, and as the local Member of Parliament, I felt that it would be wrong for me to give my opinion before that date on what should happen to Southend airport. I do not know whether any hon. Members have been to the airport, but when I first went to it, having arrived in Southend, I wondered how on earth an airport could be in the middle of such a heavily built up urban area with such narrow roads leading to it. For many years, the airport used to operate little flights to Jersey and Guernsey and aeroplanes would be repaired there; that was the bread-and-butter work.

Never mind house building programmes, the Government have issued papers about the expansion and importance of regional airports, and that is how the whole process started. I think that I speak for all my constituents in saying that everyone wishes Southend airport well because of the jobs that it provides for local communities. However, when some years ago the then owner suggested that the airport should expand, there was meltdown. The then manager suggested that the beautiful 1,000-year-old church of St. Laurence be put on wheels and moved so many yards to allow the runway to expand and roads to be closed. English Heritage had something to say about that barking mad proposal, which caused huge upset in the constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and I work closely together on Southend issues, but there is a huge divide about the airport issue. The reality is that the airport expansion will not affect Rochford and Southend, East. Any expansion of the facilities, particularly the runway, will impact only on Southend, West, and the aircraft will take off entirely over the area that I represent.

The local authority has been under huge pressure. It has done the best that it can to consult and engage with the general public on this issue. However, I represent the highest number of centenarians in the country, and expecting senior citizens to e-mail replies and use that sort of technology is a complete non-starter. Having gone through the consultation document, I think that it raises more questions than it answers. We have not been given anywhere near enough detail about developments such as the new railway station, which will apparently bring people to the airport so that we do not have to worry about road expansions and closures. The proposal that the increased flights should take place from as early as 6.30 am until 11 o’clock at night is absolutely ludicrous. Unless I am missing the point, that means that my constituents will have complete freedom from any noise, pollution and all the rest of it only when they are asleep. That is complete madness.

Of course, there are still many processes to go through, with the public inquiry and other such matters. Without boring the House any further, I would simply say that as the Member of Parliament for Southend, West, I will be representing the views of my constituents, as any Member would. At the moment, the overwhelming volume of responses that I have received in my office—I even have
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extra people dealing with those letters—are against the proposed expansion inasmuch as it was detailed in the consultation document.

I am a trustee of the Industry and Parliament Trust, and I recently had the honour to lead a delegation to India—we went to Mumbai and to Chennai. It was a wonderful visit in every respect. In the previous year, we had been to China—to Shanghai—so Members of both Houses have had the opportunity to see at first hand the two new emerging economies and all the opportunities that can be provided for business women and men to engage with them. This country is very popular in India; the Indians are very keen for us to trade more goods and services with them. I have already had a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, thanks to the good offices of Baroness Coussins and Lord Janvrin, who are leading the detailed lobbying following our trip, and we have had a debate in Westminster Hall. Like my colleagues on the trip, I am determined to build on the many friendships that were formed during that period.

The Indian election, with the unexpectedly solid victory of the Congress party, is a powerful mandate for an agenda of reform. We can expect greater privatisation in infrastructure development and education reforms, which will present new opportunities to British exporters and investors. The Prime Minister, Mr. Singh, has already stressed the importance of India’s secular leadership over parties that had sought to stress divisions of religion, caste and language—an equitable development.

The new Government will implement a range of reforms of great interest to Britain. They have introduced into the upper House an insurance Bill allowing more foreign direct investment in the sector. There is also a banking regulations amendment, which allows for greater private participation in the banking system, and the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill, which seeks to establish a regulator to push through reforms in the pensions sector. We should also be prepared for an easing of foreign ownership restrictions in the telecommunications and retail sectors, and have in place the right regulatory architecture to take advantage of those developments. Our consulates are doing a splendid job, as is the British Council, but we should be even more proactive than we are at the moment.

I want to praise Southend council’s measures against excessive indulgence in alcohol by young people. In Southend, we have a very strong record of preventive work in encouraging young people not to develop bad habits with regard to alcohol. That forms part and parcel of the healthy schools programme, which we deliver in partnership with the primary care trust. A high proportion of our schools have received healthy schools accreditation because of the strength of their work in that area.

I know that other hon. Members have touched on this issue, but there seems to be a problem with the funding of our schools generally. We can talk about the formula ad nauseam, but a number of our schools are struggling with the funding formula at the moment. I was recently lobbied about it by our excellent adult college of further education, which helps people with learning difficulties.

There is certainly a funding problem in education generally, but putting that aside, Southend council has been proactive in the initiative to deal with alcohol abuse and encourage young people not to go down a
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particular path. Ofsted inspections of schools in Southend comment that a very high proportion deliver outstanding work in encouraging children and young people to be healthy. The impact of that work is demonstrated in what young people tell us through the so-called “tell us survey”, which indicates that 5 per cent. fewer young people in Southend misuse alcohol than is the case nationally. That is quite a large percentage.

The full joint area review inspection of children’s services in autumn 2007 said that a major strength was well received initiatives to prevent substance misuse. It stated:

The ‘Getting on with the Blues’ project at Southend United football club—the club is starting work on its new stadium, which we hope will be available for various sporting activities during the Olympic games—is an initiative aimed at primary school age children. It is being very well received and focuses on reducing alcohol misuse and antisocial behaviour, and more than 1,500 pupils have taken part in it. Evaluations of the project have found that most pupils, and all their teachers, rated it as excellent. The SOS bus and alcohol misuse outreach work have responded effectively to alcohol misuse by young people, and the alcohol misuse outreach worker has been effective in reducing reoffending and alcohol use by young people.

Over the past 18 months, the work of our drugs and alcohol action team has strengthened further, and its work in supporting young people who need support and treatment because of alcohol abuse is now very effective. We also have further programmes to launch, so I hope that the Government are pleased with what Southend is doing in that respect.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of being at the launch of an initiative at Westborough primary school, where we have a wonderful headmistress called Mrs. Jenny Davies. It is the largest primary school in Essex, and there we launched the English schools induction service. The service was designed by Blade Education to educate children aged between four and 11 whose first language is not English about the customs and rules of the British schooling system, in their native language. It is a pioneering multilingual service that promotes social cohesion by welcoming children and their families into primary education in the language that they fully understand.

The service provides 21 informative, accessible and, most importantly, child-friendly films that are available in a wide variety of language settings. The films help to integrate children who do not speak English as their first language into our schooling system, and they provide them with a realistic expectation of school life and help them to understand what will be expected of them as they go through their years in school. It will be used in every one of our 37 primary schools in Southend, and there are plans to launch an online version in September 2009 and to expand the service to secondary schools. A recent survey conducted by Blade Education noted that numerous educators had commented on the need for the English schools induction service to be instigated nationwide, and I wish to make that point to the Government.

I have a few comments to make about the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the police force in general. I get any number of complaints about all sorts
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of issues involving the police. I have the highest regard for the IPCC, which is headed by Nick Hardwick. He is an outstanding civil servant, who does a splendid job. However, I have lost count of the matters with which I have tried to assist constituents. The journey through the IPCC can go on for one, two, three, four and five years. At the end of it, the IPPC’s powers to gain anything, such as apologies, compensation or change in police force practice, are zilch.

In Essex, there is a high turnover of police officers, especially at a senior level. That is not a particularly good thing. They all seem to retire early, for all manner of reasons. I have lost count of the letters that I have received from senior officers, introducing themselves to me and suggesting yet another meeting, and so it goes on. That shows the difficulty in conducting IPCC inquiries.

I have the highest regard for the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing. He said in a written answer to me that the IPCC is not responsible for imposing disciplinary sanctions on police forces or individuals. As we all know, Members of Parliament are currently in the limelight and we keep saying that no one is above the law. For that reason, we must address what is going on in our police forces.

The evidence, findings and recommendations of IPCC investigations are apparently fed into the police performance and conduct systems as and when appropriate. What is the point of the IPCC if it cannot impose discipline on police officers who are found guilty of abusing their powers? When a police officer has a complaint upheld against him, he is offered “words of advice”—would not Members of Parliament like to be offered “words of advice”?—from a senior officer. What message does that convey? More important, what deterrent is that? Other words such as “guidelines” and “recommendations” are worthless and meaningless, as is the expression, “Let’s have a review.”

When constituents complain and their representations are upheld, what “words of advice” are given to police officers and police forces? Who monitors the police complaints? How do respective police forces implement IPCC judgments? Commissioners come and go; the personnel change all the time.

I suspect that I was one of the few Members of Parliament who responded to the consultation process to try to give the IPCC more power so that, when people’s complaints were successful, at least small amounts of compensation could be paid and public apologies could be made.

The Public Accounts Committee, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) admirably chairs, has done a splendid job in investigating the IPCC. In its 15th report, which was published only in March, the Committee made some excellent recommendations, including that the Home Office should clarify who is responsible for monitoring the implementation of IPCC recommendations. I have been in constant correspondence with Ministers about it, and the replies are just not satisfactory. I should therefore be grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House if he could, in due course, please find out from the Home Office what progress is being made on introducing an appropriate system.

I repeat that I have the greatest regard for Nick Hardwick and the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, who is responsible for the matter.
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I took the consultation seriously and made some suggestions, but when will genuine progress be made? There is no doubt that the whole system governing police complaints needs to be re-examined and reformed. I hope that the Public Accounts Committee report is acted on soon.

The House has been indulgent, so I shall come to my last point, which is about fuel poverty. If we go outside this Chamber, we will see that it is a lovely early summer or late spring day. On days like today we forget about fuel poverty. We wait until November, and if there is a cold snap, we get hon. Members raising the issue. That is too late. Why did I and other hon. Members invest a year of our lives in 2000 to ensure that the then Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill became an Act? Why did we charge the Government with a duty to end fuel poverty, which we now know will not happen? Five million people are living in fuel poverty.

I welcome the Government’s recent initiatives to address fuel poverty, which include the community energy saving programme, enhancing funding for the carbon emissions reduction target and raising the maximum grant under the Warm Front scheme. Ofgem is finally to act on failings and unfairness in the competitive energy market, which acts to the detriment of disadvantaged consumers, although it is a serious indictment of the regulator that remedial action has been so long in coming.

However, the result of raising the maximum Warm Front grant without increasing the scheme’s budget is that fewer vulnerable households can be assisted. The Warm Front budget should be increased at least to maintain the number of households that can be assisted. We need a longer-term strategy to address fuel poverty through a national energy efficiency scheme to improve our entire housing stock. We need to introduce a social tariff combining consistent eligibility criteria and a degree of consumer benefit to provide certainty to vulnerable consumers and their advisers.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about fuel poverty. He is absolutely right that one should not wait until winter before one talks about it. Across the country, Eaga and the campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of the initiatives that he has mentioned work with hon. Members to encourage them to draw their constituents’ attention to those schemes. I have such an initiative on 12 June, at the civic offices of the London borough of Sutton, which I hope my constituents might hear about through this debate.

Mr. Amess: I applaud the hon. Gentleman for that initiative. It is not silly to do such things in summer. Each Member of Parliament needs to look at the situation in their constituency and try to do something now. The winter fuel payment needs to be reformed and extended to the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged non-pensioner households.

In these very difficult times, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all the Officers of the House a very happy Whitsun.

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