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21 May 2009 : Column 1694

My hon. Friend also mentioned his constituents’ concerns about the proposed expansion of Southend airport. That point has certainly been taken on board and I hope that that message will be conveyed to the Transport Secretary by the Deputy Leader of the House.

My hon. Friend also spoke about his recent visit to Mumbai and Chennai. He is right to point out that India and China—he told us about his visit to China last year—are the economic powerhouses of this century. He described the Indians’ willingness to engage in trade with Britain, but it is important that we do not take our historic links with India for granted. Many other countries that do not have those links are cultivating business relationships with India actively and aggressively. We must compete alongside them in the market, and not sit back and rely on our historic connections to further the trade links that we need for our own economic purposes.

I certainly wish my hon. Friend’s local football club well with its initiative on young people, and he is right to say that we must not wait until winter before we debate fuel poverty. It is a very serious problem that affects many people, and it is something that we must debate whenever we can so that we can improve matters generally.

Again, we were privileged to have the presence of the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). It seems that several hon. Members had to leave functions to attend today’s debate, but the hon. Gentleman had a good reason for not being here earlier—he was celebrating the Gurkhas’ very successful campaign, and I am pleased that Peter Carroll has been given the recognition that he deserves. His name is now firmly embedded in the Hansard record.

The hon. Gentleman told us about the cinema complex being opened in his constituency. That is a not unfamiliar tale. Most of us have small towns where people have few activities to get involved and engaged in. Many such towns are being destroyed because retail outlets are closing as a result of supermarkets’ ever increasing power.

The hon. Gentleman described the lack of public consultation on a massive development in his constituency, and I am sure that all of us can understand how much that has upset his constituents. He said that supermarkets use loss leaders in the sale of alcohol to attract customers, and I understand that mineral water is sometimes sold at higher prices than alcohol. Clearly, that is something that needs to be looked into.

Finally, may I take this opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to wish you a very happy and restful Whitsun recess? I should also like to extend those good wishes to all the people who work for the House and for hon. Members, and to the security staff who do so much to keep us safe.

3.16 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): The debates that we have before recesses are very bizarre. They are a potpourri, a smorgasbord, an array of tapas, a pick’n’ mix of an event to which little bits and pieces of debate are brought along. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) admitted as much when, in a rather random
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way and after telling us about the pubs that she regularly frequents until a late hour, she said that she was going to turn to the middle east.

As I understand it, many years ago these debates were answered by the Prime Minister. An hon. Member would speak, the Prime Minister would reply, and that process would go on until the House was exhausted. On one occasion, an ageing Winston Churchill took 17 hours to respond to a pre-recess debate that ended in the small hours of the morning. He went to the Tea Room for a mutton chop, some chips and a cigar, and received a standing ovation as he walked in. I do not suppose that there will be many chops left by the time I finish my speech, and I am sure that I will not get a standing ovation.

The Whitsun recess debate is the oddest of all, I think. The vast majority of people who enjoy the holiday do not necessarily think of its religious significance. I used to be a curate and so it fell to me to preach the sermon on Trinity Sunday, which is the one that follows Whit Sunday. The concept of the trinity is a most complicated piece of theology, and very difficult to communicate to people. It was left to the curate to explain the inexplicable—not unlike what happens with these debates. I had some difficulty, since some of my own theology was a little random too; for many years I laboured under the misapprehension that the Lord’s prayer began, “Our Father, a chart in heaven, Harold be thy name.”

Whitsun, of course, is about Pentecost: it is when the Holy Spirit, as the shadow Leader of the House mentioned today, descends on the apostles and they speak in tongues—hence the bishop’s hat is in the shape of fire on top of their heads. Of course, at the time everyone thought they were drunk; and the apostles replied that they could not be drunk because it was only 11 o’clock in the morning. That reminds me that we have had rather a lot of references to alcohol today—arguments in favour of a change in the Government’s position on beer duty and a difference of views about how we should support pubs and whether we should be cracking down on under-age drinking. I am conscious that George Bernard Shaw said of alcohol and Parliament that alcohol allowed Parliament to do at 11 o’clock at night what it would never, ever think of doing at 11 o’clock in the morning.

The first of our speakers was the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who spoke largely on health issues relating to his constituency, particularly the restructuring of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust. I always think it slightly odd when Members refer to operating deficits in hospitals, but the hon. Gentleman spoke about the need for financial restructuring and for targets and gave us what he called his worm’s-eye perspective of what is going on locally. He referred specifically to the problems of staffing in his local hospitals, and of physical access. He pointed out that it is important for people to have public transport access to local hospitals. He mentioned the issue of having to change buses. I note that he, in his political career, has changed bus once or twice. He originally stood in 1966, when I was four years old, as the Labour candidate in Folkestone and Hythe. Then he was an Under-Secretary of State for Transport from 1976 to 1979, and an Under-Secretary
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of State for Health in a Government of a rather different complexion from 1995 to 1997. I always think that versatility is a very fine thing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is an Atlas in this House in his attempts to hold the constitution on his shoulders, and to ensure that the House stands for the highest possible standards and takes its role as a democratic body extremely seriously. I have read a great deal of what he has written and have been involved in many campaigns for reform with him; I pay tribute to him. He said that MPs have deluded themselves that they have power, because really it is only the Government who have power in the House, and he said that we ought to be doing more about that.

I agree with many things that my hon. Friend said, but in one respect I disagree. He said that the secret ballot was a very important tool. It is true that Gladstone’s Reform Act 1872, which introduced the secret ballot—which, incidentally, was vigorously opposed by the Conservative party at the time—brought about a very significant change in our democracy and took away a great deal of corruption. Nevertheless, this House has rightly tended to eschew secret ballots, because it is important that our voters know how we do our business and how we voted.

I note that recently, when the Spanish Parliament had to decide whether Spain should join the war in Iraq, it had a secret ballot. If this House had gone down that route, I think that our voters would have been very angry with us.

Mr. Heath: There would not have been a war.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman says that there would not have been a war, but I do not think that that is an argument for a secret ballot; I am sure he is not making that argument. I concede that there may be some areas where we should use secret ballots in the House—perhaps for elections such as that for the Speaker.

There is another area of disagreement. Several hon. Members, including the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, have suggested that the new Speaker must review how many Members of Parliament there should be. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said that a new Speaker, whether he or she, should radically reform this House. I issue a word of caution. I believe that the Speaker should be the servant of the House, and Speaker Lenthall made that point clearly. An important change took place, and although a new Speaker still has to be approved by Her Majesty—there is a procession to the House of Lords—the Speaker is the servant of this House. We cannot evade our responsibilities by expecting a Speaker to bring about the reform that we need.

Mr. Allen: I have two points of clarification to make, because I know that my hon. Friend is not trying to misrepresent me. First, I did not at any point say that the House should have secret ballots on proposals discussed on the Floor of the House, on policy matters, or even on going to war, although, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out, perhaps such a ballot might have produced a different result. My view is that there should be secret ballots on the three particular House matters that I mentioned, because Members would then clearly vote with their conscience, as opposed to being swayed by the Whips.

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Secondly, I am not saying that the Speaker should be a superman or woman, and should attempt to reform the House radically. The Speaker should, in the Minister’s words, be the person who facilitates the will of the House. Sometimes, as I am sure my hon. Friend will admit, that will has been thwarted by Government, or the alternative Government. Let the House speak freely—that is how I would put the case for a secret ballot in certain circumstances.

Chris Bryant: Of course I have no desire to misrepresent my hon. Friend. I have two points to make. First, strangely, on the occasion to which I referred, a secret ballot was held in the Spanish Parliament because the Spanish Socialist party, which was opposed to the war, thought that more people would vote against the war if there was a secret ballot. In fact, some of its Members must have voted in favour of the war because there was a secret ballot. So one can never quite prejudge how a secret ballot would operate. However, I think that we are all agreed that MPs should not seek to obscure from their voters how they intend to vote on any public policy position. It is a rather different matter when we are electing a Speaker. Anyway, the House has already made a decision about the direction in which we should move. It is important to note that when the first Speaker—Peter de la Mare, I think—was elected in the 14th century, it was really an appointment by the Crown. We have moved a long way from that, and that is an important principle.

Mr. Vara: I wish to clarify a point. Clearly, I recognise that the Government would initiate any reduction in the number of Members of Parliament. What I was trying to say is that the Speaker, by virtue of sitting in the Chair, would have to oversee such a radical change. Clearly, the initiative comes from the Government, but at the end of the day, the Speaker—a servant of the House, as we have just been told—would oversee what happens. There is a distinction, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House appreciates it.

Chris Bryant: Well, I am trying to appreciate it, but I am not getting any closer, I am afraid. Perhaps we will have to have a discussion about that at some point, without delaying the rest of the House.

I hope that I am not breaking any convention when I say that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—I got his constituency right, for the first time—told me, before coming into the Chamber, that he had only one word for his speech: disconnection. None the less, he managed to connect his thoughts, more or less. He said that the Commons had been trodden through the mud, and that there had been “almost irreparable damage to our reputation”; I think that those were his precise words.

I do not think that anybody in this House is labouring under the illusion that there is not a significant need for reform, and I very much hope that all parties will be able to come together to ensure that that reform comes about. The democratic process, based on universal franchise, is something that people fought for through generations in this country, and something that we all uphold. Without the opportunity to change society through the democratic process, we have no means of changing it, and we cannot even hope for a fairer or better world. The hon. Gentleman called for a massive programme of
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democratic reform to empower the individual, and I think that he knows from many things that I have said, both at the Dispatch Box and as a Back Bencher, that I wholeheartedly agree with many of the measures for which he has campaigned.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who often speaks in such debates, talked about the problem in his constituency in relation to Vestas, which has announced a 90-day consultation on the closure of its factory, with the loss of about 600 direct jobs. He will be only too aware of the fact that one of the problems for Vestas is that its market is not just a UK one. In fact, much of its plant supplies the American market, because the blades that it builds are the size mostly used in the USA, rather than in the UK.

The Government are keen, especially in a recession and because we want to tackle climate change, to make sure that we provide proper support for renewable energy industries. That is why there has been £4 billion of new capital from the European Investment Bank for UK renewable energy projects, and £405 million to support low-carbon manufacturing, including wind projects in the UK. We are keen to do more. I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s comments on to the responsible Ministers, so that if there is anything further that they can do, they have an opportunity to do so.

Likewise, I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the disposal of fallen stock. He pointed out that there was now official derogation for burial, but he said that there were significant worries about whether the burial of farm animals was safe and sensible, and whether there would be problems for water conduits. He also raised a series of other issues that needed to be treated seriously, and I will pass those messages on.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to waiting lists, and the need constantly to bear down on them. Some people say that it is wrong to have targets in the health service, because somehow or other that interferes with medical considerations. When I was first elected, my own experience in south Wales was that many people who regularly came to see me were suffering from serious conditions, having been told that they would have to wait three, four or five years, particularly for orthopaedic operations. Those waiting lists do not exist any more in my area. Health is a devolved responsibility in Wales, so it is not the Government’s particular responsibility, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that if there is a long waiting list, that can exacerbate poor mental health, let alone poor physical health.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), contrary to what the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) said, made a rather good speech. He spent quite a lot of time attacking the Conservative party, which is obviously a sane and sensible thing to do. I do not have an axe to grind in that particular enmity, as both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit in the Rhondda and indeed—well, I will not say any more about that. The hon. Gentleman talked rather a lot about the Members’ bathroom, which he seems regularly to have shared with the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). I do not want to go there, in more ways than one. He said that Colchester is the fasting growing area in Britain.

Bob Russell: It has a growing population.

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Chris Bryant: Well, as an area, it cannot be growing—it must still be the same size that it always was. I presume that he meant that the number of people living in Colchester was growing, or that the people were the fastest growing people in Britain. He sought to portray Essex as having had a despotic regime, and if it had a Conservative council, I am sure that he was absolutely right.

The hon. Gentleman raised several important education matters. He is absolutely right that, whenever there is a discussion about school sizes and the availability of local schools, we need to ensure that there are safe routes to school and that Every Child Matters is not just the name of a programme or a slogan, but really means something. I hope that the local council in my constituency will reconsider—again this is a devolved issue—whether to close Aberllechau primary school and to merge the two schools in Maerdy. I do not think that the proposals will end up providing precisely the kind of education that the children in those relatively isolated communities very much need

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, in her randomised speech—I do not seek to be rude; that was me seeking to be nice—as I think she herself admitted, referred to funding issues that she has already raised with the Schools Minister, and I will pass those comments on. Likewise, she raised issues regarding Highgate post offices and she referred to the average waiting time in some post offices being very lengthy, which is something that the Post Office must consider closely. In my constituency there are issues on which we have to fight. One of the difficulties, again in Maerdy, is that the local sub-postmaster has simply not wanted to continue because the business is not economic. I am glad that the Post Office is committed to ensuring that there will always be a post office in Maerdy.

The hon. Lady raised the important issues of baby Peter. All hon. Members have been very troubled by all the stories that we have seen in this regard, not least because none of us wants to enter into a culture where social workers receive all the blame for society’s ills. Many of us will want to pay tribute to the work that social workers do, often in a very pressurised and sometimes under-resourced situation. The Government sought to act swiftly and I know that the hon. Lady has taken up issues directly with Ministers. If there are other issues that she wants to pass on, I am sure that she will.

The hon. Lady referred to her constituent in Mumbai, an interesting issue that I will pass on to the relevant Minister. I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that question. She also referred to mental health facilities in her area. My mother was an alcoholic and made quite a few visits to mental health facilities, so I know the importance of ensuring that no stigma attaches to mental health problems. That means that facilities must not be dirty, grotty and a relic of the Victorian era, but provide the best mental health support possible. Ethically and morally, there is no difference between a mental health problem and any other kind of health problem.

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