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"That said, I also think it is reasonable to ask him to facilitate such a visit in the future".
The real issue is the Secretary of State's decision to overturn the Parole Board's recommendation that Mr. Biggs be released. That was an unreasonable and cruel decision, and there is some evidence that has been put forward by some lawyers that it was a misuse of power and, indeed, ultra vires. Clearly, Mr. Biggs had to spend his time in prison, but his 30-year sentence was excessive. I looked up the Dome diamond robbers, who I think are pretty comparable to those who took part in the great train robbery. Two of them got 18 years, two got 15 years and one got five years. Mr. Biggs would have been released if he had received such a sentence. His sentence was excessive in the first place. It is more comparable to the sentences passed on serious sex offenders and mass murderers, and was inappropriate.
Mr. Biggs has now served 10 years after surrendering in 2001. He was eligible for parole and was recommended for parole. The reason given for not granting him that was that he was not repentant. I have a letter from Mr. Chris Pickard, who was the ghost writer behind Ron's autobiography, "Odd Man Out". He states:
"I do, therefore, have to question who is advising and briefing Mr. Straw as most of what he has said about Ron in his ruling is simply factually wrong."
"To say Ron is unrepentant goes against all the interviews Ron has given on the subject over the years and what he wrote in his autobiography in 1994. Ron has always abhorred violence and has not committed a crime since escaping from HMP Wandsworth back in 1965, other than entering a number of countries on a false passport. Why after over 44 years would Ron, who may never now walk again, return to a life of crime and how would he pull it off in his current state of health?"
To say that Mr. Biggs is unrepentant is plain wrong, and to say that he could benefit from crime is ludicrous. This is an ill man, who can hardly walk; I shall say a little about his ill health. He is not going on a speaking tour. He cannot earn from his crime-that would be against the law. It is the media who are imposing themselves on him, not Ron imposing himself on them, and that will happen anyway when he is released, unless he dies in prison, as some officials in the Home Office seem to want. That is unreasonable.
There is some dubiety-I think some craziness-about the legal powers being exercised by the Justice Secretary, using a law that has been repealed and another that was overruled by the Law Lords in 2002. There is massive inconsistency. The Secretary of State will not intervene in cases of murderers who have received life sentences, but he says that he can in cases involving lower offences, such as that of Mr. Biggs. He says that he cannot intervene on future cases, because the law has been changed, but he can on past cases. That is wholly inconsistent.
A case is being made by Mr. Biggs's son, Michael, that there was some political element to the decision. The day before, the Secretary of State made a decision in relation to Michael Shields, the Liverpool man who is in prison in Bulgaria. He decided not to let him go, which I think was the wrong decision, but once he had made that decision, he had to make a similar decision in respect of Ronnie Biggs. Both were unreasonable decisions, and the motivation in the Ronnie Biggs case was unreasonable.
In reply to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on the matter, the Leader of the House said that the Justice Secretary had
made his decision to keep Ronnie Biggs in prison in the public interest. What public interest is there in keeping a frail 80-year-old man, who has served 10 years, in prison? It is a cruel penal policy, which many organisations for the elderly and the Prison Reform Trust say it is wrong to inflict on the increasing number of people in their 70s and 80s in prison, despite the fact that the severity of the crimes involved has not increased. Why do we have such elderly people in prison, when they should be outside?
My last point concerns Mr. Biggs' ill health. He has suffered three strokes, cannot walk, cannot talk, cannot go to the toilet without a bag, has a nasal gastric feed, has broken his hip and his pelvis, has injured his spine, has acute pneumonia and is currently in Norwich general hospital. This is a man who is a threat to society, according to the Secretary of State for Justice. That is ridiculous. The decision should be reconsidered. It is not in the public interest to have an inhumane penal policy. We should have a humane policy, so I ask that it be reconsidered.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen). I hope he will forgive me for not following his line, as I intend to begin by speaking about a group of people whom I regard as more deserving of our sympathy and support-the victims of the Equitable Life debacle. Today's statement by the Chief Secretary was extremely disappointing. It continues a saga that has gone on for almost 10 years, whereby the Government have delayed and ducked and weaved in order to try and avoid their responsibilities in relation to the victims of Equitable Life.
Today, in response to the challenge from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who asked why the Government did not table a substantive motion on the subject in order to see whether that gets the support of Parliament, the answer from the Chief Secretary was that that was a matter for the business managers. Will the Deputy Leader of the House, as a business manager on duty tonight, tell the House tonight that as soon as Parliament returns in the autumn, the Government will table a substantive motion on Equitable Life? If she cannot give such an undertaking, will she explain why?
The issue should be one for Parliament, rather than for the Government. After all, we talk about the parliamentary ombudsman. The cynical way in which the Government are responding to the crisis, which seriously affects groups of elderly people in all our constituencies, is contributing to bringing the House into disrepute and making it appear as though we are some way removed from the interests of our constituents. I hope the Minister will address that challenge when she responds.
Another matter which I hope the hon. Lady will address is what is happening to the regional spatial strategy for the south-west. My constituents and others elsewhere in the south-west have been waiting for years for a final determination of the regional spatial strategy. They were told by the Government that that information would be made available at the end of June. I tabled a question to obtain that information which was answered
on 16 June. The then Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), stated:
"We intended to issue the final Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West at the end of June. However, on 20 May, the High Court issued a judgment that the previously issued Regional Spatial Strategy for the East of England had failed to meet certain requirements".
"reach a clear view until the written judgment is issued...It is not possible to set a new timetable, until the implications of the judgment have been clarified."-[ Official Report, 16 June 2009; Vol. 496, c. 208W.]
The latest information was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) in a parliamentary answer on 9 July, in which the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) said:
"On 20 May, the High Court gave an oral judgment about the published Regional Strategy for the East of England...The Department and the Government Office for the south-west are currently considering the potential implications for the Regional Spatial Strategy for the south-west, and an announcement is expected shortly."-[ Official Report, 9 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 960W.]
I should like to ask the Deputy Leader of the House two questions. First, when will we get the Government's response to the regional spatial strategy for the south-west? Secondly, will she guarantee that that response will not be issued during the parliamentary recess, making it impossible to hold the Government to account? I am sure that she can make a statement to confirm that, because the Government have not been able to do anything about this during the parliamentary Session until this stage in July, so they should not make an announcement when the House is not sitting. It is relevant that the South-West Regional Grand Committee is meeting in Exeter in 3 September, and it would be a pity if information on that regional spatial strategy was bounced on the Committee just before that date. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House can give me a specific response.
Finally, I want to flag up the important inquiry that the Procedure Committee has launched into the way in which we appoint the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers. I hope that the news that we are undertaking such an inquiry will ensure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your fellow Deputies have a more enjoyable vacation than might otherwise be possible, as I think that the air has been cleared, and it is obvious that your future is assured for much longer than might have been thought likely after Mr. Speaker's statement on 2 July. I hope that Mr. Speaker himself will give evidence to the Procedure Committee and can comment on the Procedure Committee report from the 2001-02 Session. The Committee determined that
"it is entirely possible that the House might in future choose a Speaker from one party at a time when two of the three sitting Deputy Speakers were also members of that party. In such circumstances it would be unfair to expect a sitting Deputy Speaker to resign merely to re-balance the team."
Mr. Chope: I have made the point as I wished to, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope that as a result of doing so, the air is cleared and that Members will be encouraged to give evidence to the Select Committee.
Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): Year 5 at St. Christopher's school in my constituency of Brent, North is not usually the final year for pupils. However, on 18 May 2009, parents were notified that St. Christopher's would not run a year 6 class from this September. Parents were given two months to plan their children's future before the end of the school year, which is in breach of the contract between parents and Happy Child Ltd, which runs St. Christopher's school-some people may think that is a misnomer in the circumstances. I wrote at that point to Ms Tracey Storey, the managing director of Happy Child, asking her to clarify precisely when Happy Child began to consider that alternative provision for those children might be required, and to explain why absolutely no consultation with parents had taken place before 18 May to discuss their understandable concerns.
I was extremely concerned-and still am-about the impact of Happy Child's decision on other parents and children in the school. Such a decision undermines the confidence of parents whose children are in year 4 and below and who expect their children to continue to be taught at the school until the end of year 6. I asked Ms Tracey Storey to clarify Happy Child's plans for year 6 teaching for the children currently in year 4 and below.
Changing school is a stressful experience at any time, and it is normal for children to take time to settle in and make new friends. Year 6 is a critical year for many of those children, as they sit SATs and other examinations in preparation for their secondary school education. Such a change in the lives of those children can only be detrimental to their educational attainment and their future success. The parents tell me that their children were looking forward to being in the top year of the school and having the chance to be elected to positions of responsibility-being prefects and so on-and they are concerned that their children will miss out on those opportunities if they are removed from St. Christopher's. There are other issues about which the parents are concerned, including the additional cost of having to purchase a new school uniform, which raises the wider issue of compensation.
I therefore asked Ms Tracey Storey to confirm what she and Happy Child would do about issues such as compensation, as well as the fact that the school had failed to give the required notice, as set out in the contractual provisions between it and the parents. She replied that she was not prepared to discuss
"Happy Child's decision to ensure the viability of our business".
There was not one mention of regret or the effect on the children and their lives, or of the breach of contract with the parents. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to speak with the appropriate Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. At a time when children are going off on their summer holidays, can we ensure that those children in particular become happy children, not Happy Child's victims?
I want briefly to raise another issue that affects my constituency. Bailiffs are out of control in Brent, and the council is instructing them, even in cases in which it had entered into agreements with my constituents that they could pay their debts by instalment. We are all aware of the effects of the recession, and debt is likely to be on the rise. It is important that public institutions and bodies act appropriately. It is absolutely right that they should agree to make payment by instalment available to debtors who wish to enter into such agreements. Unfortunately, Brent council has not seen fit to do so in the case of Mr. and Mrs. J who, on 29 July 2008, received a council tax vetting form that stated:
"The customer is agreeing to pay for himself and his wife's share, equal to £245.60 of £739.06. The Council will have to make a decision if this is acceptable. The customer is able to pay by direct debit in 5 payments."
Despite the fact that Brent council failed to write to Mr. and Mrs. J, it instructed bailiffs, who arrived at their house on 9 December, asking for £1,142.91. My constituents had to pawn some jewellery to pay that amount. The bailiffs then contacted them again, stating that they owed a further £764.06, and Mr. J sent a letter to the council offering to pay the amount in five instalments. The council agreed to accept payment by instalments and, I am pleased to say, has now, after investigating the matter, agreed that it was mistaken to instruct the bailiffs.
Unfortunately, the council has not agreed as much in the case of Mr. F, regarding a council tax debt. On 1 July 2009, Equita Bailiffs visited his property to collect a debt of £2,300. The bailiffs did not see Mr. F, but they pressurised his aged and sick mother, who was not the debtor, to go to the bank and withdraw the full amount to pay off her son's debts.
Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) opened the debate this afternoon at breathtaking speed. He did not quite leave himself breathless, but I was impressed by the number of different subjects that he was able to cover in the relatively short time that is available to us today. I have common cause with him about the Government's incredible approach to the future of tax offices, which, in Galashiels and Hawick in my constituency, have been left in complete limbo. Highly skilled and professional staff are unsure about their future. I echo also some of the hon. Gentleman's comments on fuel duty and Equitable Life, which others have repeated in the debate.
I shall return in a minute to manufacturing, one of the hon. Gentleman's main themes, but, first, I should like to pick up on the comments from the hon. Member
for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who made some criticisms of local hospitals in his constituency. I appreciate that his comments were very specific and about circumstances that are unknown to me, but for my part I put on the record a great tribute to the consultants, midwives, nurses and others in the Borders general hospital, where-I hope the House will allow me the indulgence-my daughter, Ella, was born eight weeks ago. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] I thank hon. Ladies and Gentlemen for their reaction to that fact.
I was really taken by the professionalism and dedication of the hospital's staff. I was obviously focused on my experience and the health of my wife, Alison, and daughter, Ella, but I also saw at close hand over many days the dedication of those staff and their need and ability to switch between so many different, pressing cases all the time. It was the best insight that I have had into the national health service in all the years that I have been a Member. We can never praise sufficiently those who serve in the health service.
The personal is important to us in our work as Members, and I should like to turn to another encounter. In Hawick in my constituency on Saturday, I joined many others from the town to celebrate the gathering there of the clan Turnbull, a very proud and historic family in the area. While I stood waiting for the pipe band as it marched along to the unveiling of a new sculpture, however, a lady appeared out of the crowd beside me. She was very angry, perturbed and keen to impress upon me the scale of the problems for members of her family who have lost their jobs in the past year.
My constituency is the centre of the UK's cashmere knitting industry. The people of Hawick, Galashiels, Selkirk, Innerleithen, which I used to represent, and other areas all contribute to a world-class industry, but in the past year the unemployment statistics, which have doubled in my part of the world, have been largely changed by the terrible experience of many in that sector. They have been losing those jobs, and that lady was very intent-I assure the House that she made her point-on getting across to me the human suffering of her children, her grandchildren, their friends and others in the town who have lost their jobs in recent months, and of those who fear greatly for the future of their jobs.
Indeed, I fear that unless we see urgent action from the Government now to tackle not only the general problems of manufacturing but the specifics of textiles, we will see many more job losses. Last week, I met the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who has responsibility for manufacturing. Alongside me was Mr. Ken Pasternak, a gentleman from Denmark who, with some supporters, has invested a considerable portion of his wealth in Peter Scott and Co. in the town. Mr. Pasternak went along not just as a senior industrialist in his own right, but as the leader of the Scottish Cashmere Club, and he therefore spoke on behalf of the whole industry. I have met him and many others countless times, and with his colleagues he has been battering to get attention from the Scottish Government. So far, however, he has been very disappointed at the lack of practical measures offered by the powers-that-be in Edinburgh.
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