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2.48 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other hon. Members, particularly those on the Government Benches, because I know that
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the Deputy Leader of the House is near boiling point in his exasperation at wanting to get away for the Whitsun recess. I can sympathise with that, because we had an important statement today on the Gurkhas and I had to rush out to celebrate with the Gurkhas who are outside. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), along with myself and a number of others, was given one of these rather marvellous scarves as a token of the appreciation that the Gurkhas feel for the vote that the House took and which the Government have now respected.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to one person in particular who has not had any credit in this whole saga, but who will, when the history is written, be seen as the key figure, notwithstanding the immense contributions made by so many other people, such as Joanna Lumley and others. That is a gentleman by the name of Peter Carroll, who picked up the campaign and ran with it six years ago in Folkestone, when the Gurkhas there went to their MP and failed to get support for their cause. Peter was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate at the time and has been involved since. He embodies the old principle that a man can achieve anything in life if he is prepared to give someone else the credit for it. Peter has given everyone else the credit for the campaign, but he has been very much the prime mover behind it. We all, but particularly the Gurkhas, owe him a considerable debt of gratitude.

Let me deal with some local issues before we adjourn for the recess. I am particularly concerned about the effects of recent Government decisions regarding the building programme of the Learning and Skills Council on both Eastleigh college and Barton Peveril college, both of which were seriously encouraged by the LSC to draw up plans for replacing old buildings and for expansion. There was an important new scheme for higher skills at Rookwood, which would be very important for higher-value manufacturing skills in our area, but all that is now on hold despite both colleges having spent substantial amounts on professional fees such as architects’ fees. They have spent more than £500,000, but they are not guaranteed to get it all back from the Government. It is a complete shambles.

It is necessary to go ahead with those schemes, which would provide important benefits to future generations, and there is no reason to prevent them from happening. The principle that one can borrow to invest is well established in every soundly run business and it ought to be well established within government, but that principle is at stake because of the LSC’s attitude towards Eastleigh college, Barton Peveril college and many other colleges across the country.

While I am discussing Eastleigh town, let me congratulate my local council and its leader, Keith House, on opening the first cinema complex for many years in the town centre. That is the latest step in the borough council’s efforts to ensure that the town is able to survive in an age when an increasing proportion of retail sales are being sucked into the maw of the great supermarket groups—Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco are all represented nearby in my constituency, and it is an enormous struggle to ensure that there is still life in the town centre, particularly given that it was recently calculated that in one expansion Asda added the equivalent of 60 town centre shops in new floor space. Finding new ways of ensuring that the town centre stays alive is absolutely
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crucial to the success and health of Eastleigh. The opening of the cinema and bowling complex, and all the leisure activities that we hope will come with it, is an important step on which I congratulate the council.

Voluntary work continues to be absolutely crucial in my constituency. I commend in particular the expansion of the street pastors scheme. There was a successful scheme in Fareham, and it has now been launched in Eastleigh. I very much look forward to the scheme having an impact in the constituency by preventing young people from feeling alienated, and by ensuring that they have things to do. We have put a lot of effort into opening youth facilities in the constituency, and the street pastors have a key role to play in pastoral care and in helping to prevent the problems in town centres on Friday and Saturday evenings of which Members across the country will be aware.

A key local issue for my constituency is the proposal in the south-east plan for a new town—a special development area—north and north-east of Hedge End, effectively surrounding the hamlet of Borley Green and spreading into the Winchester constituency as far as Durley. The lack of public consultation on those proposals flabbergasts me. Constituents would have had more notice, through the planning process, of a porch being proposed by a neighbour than they have had about 6,000 new homes being landed on their doorstep in a way that will change irreparably the communities of Botley and Borley Green, as well as the surrounding countryside.

If we propose to build an extension to our home, we have to apply for planning permission, and those most directly affected will be notified directly, in writing. In this case, however, the body whose responsibility for consulting on the south-east plan is clearly set out in statute—namely, Hampshire county council—sent out generalised literature, much of which was not delivered in the areas that will be most affected by this SDA. We strongly oppose the siting of a new town in this position, particularly as there has been such inadequate consultation and inadequate work done on alternative sites.

Another example of the planning process letting down my constituents arises further south, on the Solent at Hamble. The county council is proposing to excavate a gravel pit on the old airfield. It would scoop up a metre from the surface, but the council has provided no evidence that that is necessary. Quite apart from the impact of the recession, there has been a steady reduction in the requirement for building aggregates. The effect of going ahead with this plan would be to turn a greenfield site into an industrial brownfield site, which would of course be much easier to develop for housing under the planning rules. I believe that that is the real agenda behind this plan. It is no accident that Hamble airfield is owned by a housing company, or that that company supports the building of the gravel pit. It knows that that is a back-door way of getting planning permission to build much more housing on the site in due course.

Given how stressed Hamble lane and the access to the Hamble peninsula already are, and the sensitive nature of Hamble village itself, this development would be a disaster, and we should oppose it. I very much hope that the county council will relent, and recognise that the development is not needed to provide aggregates for the county and that we should look elsewhere in due course.

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I want to mention two more issues. I agree with hon. Members who have mentioned the problems afflicting local public houses. We recently calculated that public houses in south Hampshire were closing at an even faster rate than the national average. This is not merely a question of ensuring that alcohol tax increases do not rise substantially above the rate of inflation, as some Members and some lobbies have suggested, but of tackling some of the dramatic giveaways by the supermarket chains. These are loss leaders designed to bring in trade, and they involve selling alcohol at below cost price. This is an important issue that we need to deal with.

This week, I was encouraged by the support for the campaign for a minimum price for alcohol. Some hon. Members have suggested that young people in particular would oppose that idea because they would not be able to afford to buy alcohol, so I was pleased to see that the National Union of Students, among others, now backs the campaign. A minimum price would have the clear effect of encouraging people back into their community public houses. It is greatly preferable that when people drink, they do so in company, and in way that will enable their public houses to continue to be the centre of the community, as they have been in so many parts of the country until now.

Lastly, I would like to mention a pressing need that I hope the Government will address. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide us with some reassurance on the desperate need to provide local authorities with the powers to re-regulate buses. We have an extraordinary fight going on between the dominant local bus company, Bluestar, and a young, new, innovative competitor, Black Velvet, which to its credit attempted to provide a number of important new services—connecting, for example, Fair Oak, Chandler’s Ford and Velmore with Eastleigh. When those services, which were greatly welcomed by my constituents, began, the dominant company, Bluestar, suddenly took an interest in the same routes and decided that it, too, would run services just three minutes ahead or 10 minutes behind those already provided in an attempt to scoop up all the business.

What happened is that the new, innovative and young competitor, Black Velvet, was driven out of these routes and had to announce that it did not have the financial resources to continue to provide these services. Then, lo and behold, a few weeks after Black Velvet had pulled the plug on the new routes, Bluestar turned round and said that it was pulling the plug on them as well. Frankly, that is outrageous, bully-boy behaviour on the part of the dominant bus company. I intend to take the matter up with the Office of Fair Trading to see whether any competition laws can prevent this sort of predatory behaviour against a smaller innovative bus company. I urge the Government to provide time to debate the issue in the House and ensure that local authorities have the regulatory powers to ensure real competition between bus companies rather than this sort of anarchy, which leads to a worse service for my constituents. Frankly, it is a scandal.

I would like to pay tribute to my local daily newspaper, The Southern Daily Echo, for picking up the issue and campaigning on it. It is an important issue, particularly for those who rely on public transport. Those who do not have access to cars—often those on the lowest incomes—want better bus services and they are not getting them at the moment. It is time to look at the
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whole misguided policy of deregulating the buses, which emerged under the last Conservative Government, and to find a way of running them on a much better basis.

3.2 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate. There were perhaps not quite as many speakers as usual, but the quality was nevertheless there and a wide variety of subjects were covered—mostly local issues, but we have also strayed occasionally into the international sphere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who has a reputation for being a diligent and conscientious MP, had a strong message for the Health Secretary about the South London Healthcare NHS Trust. I am sure that we all share his concern for the dire financial state of the new trust, and he was right to commend its staff, who are doubtless working under very difficult circumstances, not quite knowing what their future might be.

My hon. Friend was also right to highlight the general difficulty of gaining physical access to hospitals. Yes, there is the issue of car parking, but public transport to hospitals is also important. I know that hon. Members who have rural areas in their constituencies will have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend, as they know how difficult it can be for people living in villages where there is no public transport. They need to travel somewhere else to get public transport in the first place and then need to change again before they eventually reach the hospital. We certainly wish the management of the new trust well in dealing with all the difficulties it faces. We hope that they will be able to come up with the right answers for my hon. Friend’s constituents.

As always, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) delivered a speech with considerable authority. He raised the crucial subject of the election of the new Speaker and in particular the role of the secret ballot. He said that this is an occasion for Parliament to exercise its own powers and not be bullied by the Executive. It is vital that we have a Speaker who will deal not only with the enormous challenges that we face, bearing in mind the current crisis, but with other issues, such as the need to reduce the number of Members of Parliament—

Chris Bryant: That has nothing to do with the Speaker.

Mr. Vara: It has everything to do with the Speaker, because it is the Speaker who presides over the House, and his guidance would be most welcome, although any change would be initiated by the Government. It would certainly be a House matter as well as a Government matter.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) gave a typically passionate speech and he rightly dealt with the difficulties that we parliamentarians are experiencing. We all need to strive to sort those out and efforts are being made in that direction, but we all recognise that we have some way to go.

The hon. Gentleman told us that his son is taking his driving test today, and we hope that he passes it. He pointed out the absurdity of having to travel such an
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enormous distance to the driving centre to take the test, which led on to the problem that people are having in accessing so many other public services, such as tax offices, health services and job centres—as mentioned by my hon. Friend in an intervention—because they are sited further and further away from where people live.

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the A303. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make some effort to convey that message to the Transport Secretary. I have a similar problem with the A14 near my constituency. It desperately needs funds, but the date for the work keeps being put back. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will also convey my concerns.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome also spoke about the huge power that is wielded by unelected bodies. He will of course be aware that if the Conservatives are successful at the election and form the next Government, we will take a sword to powerful quangos and cut their number, and that will have the effect of also saving an enormous amount of money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made a powerful speech and demonstrated that he puts the interests of his constituents first in all that he does. All of us will have had some sympathy when he spoke of the closure of Vestas in his constituency, with the loss of 600 jobs, many of them skilled. His constituents will be concerned that the company has said that it hopes to have some new jobs in due course in the UK. The failure to mention the Isle of Wight specifically carries a powerful message.

My hon. Friend was also right to pick up the issue of fallen stock and the worries and concerns of his rural community, especially the farmers. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will convey those concerns to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

My hon. Friend also mentioned serious concerns about waiting lists for his constituents, an issue with which many of us can identify. We wish him well in his battle to try to overcome those difficulties.

We then had a slight digression in terms of the tone of the debate in the speech by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads his speech in Hansard, he will on reflection take the view that it was a wasted opportunity. He spent more time talking about the Conservative party and its leader than anything else, suggesting that he is a very worried man indeed. No doubt he will be issuing a local press release and a copy of his speech to his activists, but his constituents will be aware that the national media are reporting how well the Conservative party is doing and the leadership that is being shown in that direction. I am sure that his constituents will be able to make up their own minds, rather than being influenced by such a purely partisan speech.

It was rather regrettable that attention was not paid to the clear convention that we have in this House about when hon. Members are mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, who did not do him the courtesy of providing advance notice. That courtesy was not extended to a Member of the other House who was mentioned, too, and that point was rightly mentioned by Madam Deputy Speaker.

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Bob Russell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vara: I have a reputation for being very willing to give way to many people, but on this occasion I shall not. The hon. Gentleman breached many conventions by not having the courtesy to give advance warning—a point that was mentioned by Madam Deputy Speaker—and so on that basis I shall not give way to him.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) gave a wide-ranging speech and spoke of the five post offices that have closed in her constituency. Many of us will identify with that situation, because many of us have lost post offices. Her plea that two of her post offices should be reinstated will probably fall on deaf ears, so I would not hold out too much hope.

The hon. Lady was also right to follow up on the tragic case of baby P and the continued failings in the health service. Again, I suspect that there is cross-party support for her efforts to try to bring about better health services and to minimise the incidence of such tragedies.

The hon. Lady spoke of the tragic case of the son of one of her constituents who was injured and paralysed in the Mumbai bombings. Clearly, there is an issue about compensation. People who are injured in the UK in such cases receive substantial compensation, but those British subjects who are injured in similar circumstances abroad do not get compensation. I wish her well in trying to get the meeting with the Prime Minister that she has asked for and I hope that he will give it to her without, as she said, the need for Joanna Lumley. I suspect that Ms Lumley has a lot of people wanting her support at the moment. I am minded to say that Esther Rantzen might be sitting by her phone, hoping that people will involve her, too, in some campaign or other.

The hon. Lady also touched on the tragedy of the conflict in the middle east. Again, there will be cross-party support for the recognition that the issue needs to be resolved, particularly as it is serving as a recruiting sergeant for many other terrorist groups throughout the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) left a very important church service in order to join us, and we were very privileged to—

Chris Bryant: We were blessed.

Mr. Vara: I am not sure that my hon. Friend is in a position to bless us. We were, however, certainly privileged to have access to a private conversation that he had with the Pope; I am sure that all those people who read Hansard will be grateful to have access to that conversation, too.

My hon. Friend was right to pick up on the fact that the Government are simply limping along without a proper or full agenda. Given that the Queen’s Speech contained more proposals from the Conservative party than from the governing party, the Government have clearly run out of steam. Perhaps the time is right to have an election to ensure that those who have ideas and proper, constructive policies are given the opportunity to put them to the country.

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