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1.57 pm

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I enjoy these end of term Adjournment debates in which we can talk about almost anything, but this will definitely be my last one, as I am retiring. As a result, rather than talk about various local matters, I thought that I would discuss an issue that concerns me, as someone leaving this House after 18 years. I know that those who will be here after the general election intend to make changes to the way in which this House works, especially to the work that Back Benchers do and their power-or perhaps I should say lack of power.

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I was shadow Leader of the House when the Government introduced the increase in the use of the guillotine at all stages of a Bill. I opposed it then and, given our experience of that process, I believe that the House and our legislation is the poorer for not having more time-especially in Committee and when a Bill returns from the Lords-for scrutiny and examination on a clause-by-clause, line-by-line basis. It is possible for large chunks of legislation to be added in the other place and, because of the guillotine, to reach the statute book without this House having considered the detail of it at all. That is not democracy or what most of us came into this House to do. I hope that that will be addressed in the reforms that are needed, so that MPs feel that they can play a much more active and influential role in the way in which legislation passes through this place and, as a result, represent their constituents better. Constituents often write to us, but increasingly one finds oneself writing back and saying, "I'm very sorry, but when we got to this on the Floor of the House last night, the guillotine fell and the issues that you have concerns about were not discussed, even though the Speaker might have listed the particular amendments and clauses for debate."

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) began the debate by outlining his experience in dealing with the Highways Agency. There, too, something needs to be done. All too often Members of Parliament find themselves unable to stand on the Floor of the House and ask a Minister to respond to a problem in their constituency. Instead they find themselves dealing with quangos, which can be bureaucratic and elusive in responding. That can be extremely time-consuming. If a Minister has ministerial responsibility for a brief, despite all the quangos, many of which I would like to see go, the Minister should be able to give an answer. One should not have to keep phoning a chief executive to get an answer to a local problem.

I would like to flag up my concerns regarding two pieces of paper that were on my desk this morning and which were sent to all Members of Parliament. The first is today's parliamentary ombudsman report entitled, "Cold Comfort: the Administration of the 2005 Single Payment Scheme by the Rural Payments Agency". The House has addressed that matter on many occasions, and I and other members of the Public Accounts Committee have studied it in detail. It is worrying. The ombudsman is an important person to whom Members of Parliament ultimately can take constituency problems for adjudication. Today, however, we see something quite extraordinary. Having looked at case work relating to rural single payments, the ombudsman made recommendations to Parliament, but the Government have not accepted the ombudsman's determination. This is not the first time that has happened-we saw it with Equitable Life, for example, which we debated on the Floor of the House. The letter from the ombudsman reads:

The time has come for the House to exert its power and to say to the Government that when an ombudsman makes a determination, the Government of the day should abide by it, not ignore it.

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In slight contrast, I also received from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a handy little pocket guide to the environment containing thousands of statistics. For example, on page 17, I can read about the 2007 EU municipal waste management programme for every country in the EU-fine if one is going on a quiz programme! The same Department that is refusing to accept the ombudsman's determination apparently has the resources to produce these colourful little pocket guides, however useful they might be. I do not know what they cost, but it seems that some of the priorities in some Departments are wrong.

In the 1990s, when I was a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a constituent came to me with a complaint about the Ministry. As is the rule for Ministers, I could not consider the matter because he was my constituent; I had to hand it to my colleagues. They considered my constituent's complaint, but eventually the word came back that they did not think that there was a case and would not do whatever it was that my constituent was asking MAFF to do.

I thought about the matter for a nanosecond. I was a Minister in that Ministry because the people of my constituency in Tiverton and Honiton had elected me to represent them in this place. I decided that my duties as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament meant that I should refer my own Department to the parliamentary ombudsman, because I thought that my constituent had a good case. I had an interesting conversation with the permanent secretary. I went to his office and explained to him that I was going to refer MAFF to the parliamentary ombudsman, and he turned a whiter shade of pale. I did it because I thought that my priority was to represent my constituent's interest, whether I was a Minister or a Back Bencher. We should be doing more of that. However, we need the Government to understand that when an ombudsman has a power, it is not for the Government to dismiss it and ignore what the ombudsman says.

Obviously, given that I sit on the Conservative Benches, I have a view on whom I want to form the next Government. I will not be coy: I really hope it will be a Conservative Government. However, in the coming Parliament, after the election, whoever are in government will have a golden opportunity to improve how the House works and to improve the representation of the people through the House, particularly through Back Benchers. I hope that they will reverse many of the things done in recent years and strengthen the powers of those who come to represent their constituents in trying to get results and answers and make life better for them.

Mr. Winnick: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning my remarks. However, does she agree that, apart from the other changes that have taken place-in my view for the better, but time will tell-Westminster Hall debates have given Back Benchers an opportunity that they did not have before? That is an added forum in which issues, whether national or local, can be raised.

Angela Browning: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that, at the time, I was one of the people who were extremely sceptical about how Westminster Hall would function and whether it would be of value. I do believe, however, that he was right and I was wrong. It has been
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a valuable debating Chamber. It perhaps does not have quite the clout of a debate with a vote in the House, but we would not want to see votes down in Westminster Hall. However, I agree with him. I am not saying that I am opposed to all change or that I am not a moderniser. Some areas of modernisation are good. Equally, however, I would always apply the test of whether they take powers away from Back Benchers and give them to the Executive. Whether we are Government Members or not, we are here to challenge and scrutinise the Executive and to get answers for our constituents. I think that litmus test needs to be applied.

I want to mention something that I raised in an earlier debate. Sometimes, in the House, Members repeatedly make certain points to the Government, but when the relevant policies are put into practice it becomes clear that they have not taken account of the concerns espoused by Members. That is of concern to me. We hear a lot about invitations to stakeholders and Government consultations that never come anywhere near the House when the Government are implementing policies and legislation, particularly in relation to secondary legislation and guidance.

I want to flag up another matter. Over the past couple of years, we have had legislation on disabled people who stop work or lose their jobs because of their disabilities and who then get into the cycle of going back to work. That critical area of returning to work worries me. I have asked the Jobcentre Plus in my constituency for a meeting with the people who assess whether somebody is ready to return to work. I am not necessarily talking about people who have been out of work for many years-the long-term unemployed-because there are different schemes for them. I am more concerned about people who have been out of work because of a serious illness-in particular, cancer-perhaps involving a lot of treatment and surgery, and who, as a result, are quite weak. I am also concerned about people with obvious disabilities.

I have found the recent experiences of some of those people to be quite brutal and cruel-I would use that word-as I have explained to the House before. I saw a lady who had had a lot of chemotherapy and radiography following a double mastectomy. This was her test: she went into the room and they asked her to raise her arms above her head. She could, so they said, "Right, back to work!" Her doctor said that she needed to go back part time and to do it gradually, but they dismissed that. That is why I asked for the meeting.

I have sat through many debates in the House on the need to get people back into work and on what happens when people return to work having been ill. During such debates, hon. Members on both sides of the House have told Ministers that we need to ensure that the assessors have the knowledge, expertise and medical background required to carry out proper assessments, and to ensure that they do not ride roughshod over hospital consultants and general practitioners who clearly know the patient much better than they do. It is not that those people are workshy or shirking; rather, they have had legitimate reasons not to be in work. I intend to follow that point up, but I am concerned that although I have heard it mentioned many times by colleagues across the House, for some reason what should have happened in practice has not happened.

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It would not be Christmas or the holiday season if I did not invite colleagues from all parts of the House to come and visit the glorious county of Devon during this three-week recess. They will be made very welcome there. We have the most wonderful entertainment-I can almost hear the log fires crunching away in the background-and lovely food and drink from our wonderful farms. Hon. Members would be made very welcome, and they do not need to rely on British Airways to get to Devon from wherever they live in the country, because we have an excellent airline based in my constituency at Exeter airport called Flybe. It flies from all parts of the country into Exeter. We also have an airport in Plymouth. So I say this to hon. Members: do please come, you will be made very welcome.

I have mentioned BA, so let me conclude with this. My telephone has a ringtone that I know is incredibly irritating to colleagues and which has become known as the BA tune-it is actually "The Flower Duet" from Lakmé. As it is Christmas, I have brought in my phone, in case you felt that you wanted me to hold it up and share the tune with the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am at your disposal, although I can see that you are probably not going to let me do that.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I appreciate the hon. Lady's offer, but even at this time of good will to all, I think that I would have to refuse.

Angela Browning: I rather thought that you might do that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just thought that people might like to hear the tune, because today is the last time that it will be played on my telephone. I intend to replace it tonight with Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" "The Flower Duet" from Lakmé will not be played on my telephone again.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you, all colleagues in the House and all members of staff in the House a very happy and peaceful Christmas?

2.12 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Follow that! Let me reassure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I do not have with me my mobile or the BA tune, or for that matter Rod Stewart-I may go along with the sentiments of the song, but that is about it.

This is an important time, when Back Benchers can raise important issues, whether they be world issues, national issues or local issues-the point is that we can get them on the record. None is more important than our troops who are serving on the front line. It is always difficult for those troops who are serving, but more so at this time for their families and friends. I am sure that the best wishes from all parts of the House go to our brave armed forces serving overseas. In addition, there are also the emergency services in this country-people in hospitals who work on Christmas day and people who work in power stations to ensure that the rest of us have a wonderful Christmas. We all ought to give thanks to them, too.

I want to raise a local issue and take us to a village in Chorley, where the Willows sheltered housing can be found. Chorley has its own council housing, like everywhere else, but it decided to offload its housing and set up a company called Chorley Community Housing. Of course,
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we were given the greatest of promises: lots of investment to come; people to get new kitchens, new bathrooms and renovated homes; people to be supported in their homes. The Willows is a little special: it is a sheltered housing scheme. Chorley Community Housing said that it would invest heavily in the scheme and that, in fact, it would be not just a sheltered scheme, but an extra care scheme, which makes sense for Chorley, because there are only three sheltered accommodation schemes operating in the whole borough.

Hon. Members can therefore understand how important the Willows is to us and to the people who live there-it is their home. They felt that it was the right thing to vote for Chorley Community Housing, but they now feel that it was the wrong thing. What has Chorley Community Housing done, through and with the board of Adactus, the parent company? The chief executive of Adactus told everybody how well he would look after the people in those houses or in the sheltered scheme, only for us to find that people had gone down there-there was some spare accommodation-and been told that it was going to close.

That is a sad situation, which has happened within two years. It is totally unacceptable for Chorley Community Housing, through its Adactus board, even to consider closure. I have to tell them: they have got it wrong. What they should be doing is investing the money that they have promised and putting the extra care in. Closure is not acceptable to the House, not acceptable to the people of Chorley and certainly not acceptable to the people who live there, who call it home. They should not be bullied and intimidated. Hon. Members should beware when such companies come along and make a lot of promises.

It is important that we think about those in every area with no roofs over their heads and no homes, and no more so than in the Christmas period. When we think about people who are living rough on the streets, we can be thankful that the Churches and the charities will play their part to give them shelter and food over the Christmas period. However, in the case of Chorley-a wealthy community and a great place to live-it is absurd that we have a shortage of social housing and that, somehow, the council's responsibility to provide more is not taken seriously. In fact, the council has section 106 money sat there, not being spent, that could be used to provide social housing. It is wrong and it is-how shall say this? I could make it a lot stronger, but all I will say is that it is totally regrettable.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): It is criminal.

Mr. Hoyle: "Criminal" is another word; it is regrettable that Chorley council will not do right by the people who need that support and shelter, especially as the money is there.

Within that context, people need jobs. We have gone into a recession. All the signs are that we are now coming out of it, but that usually brings another body blow, which is further increases in redundancies. The one thing that we have to learn from the recession is that we must not be reliant on the service and financial industries. We have to reinvest in manufacturing. We have to make this country great once again, so that when we export around the world, we are exporting
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products that were made and manufactured in this country. It is not too late. There are cynics who say, "It's too late. We can't put it back," but we can put it back. We have the skills, the technology and the know-how. We must not miss this great opportunity to ensure that our manufacturing is made great again.

Nowhere is that more true than at Leyland Trucks, a big employer in the area and a great, historical name. Quite rightly, Leyland Trucks should be looking for support as well. I know that the company will get a new training grant-that is welcome-and there are talks about the hybrid truck. We talk about Ministers riding round in their Japanese-built hybrid cars, with no British jobs involved and no British components; but in this case we have a hybrid truck, developed by Leyland for the benefit of the climate, to which we should give real support.

I ask hon. Members: do you know what the tragedy of this truck is? Leyland Trucks wants to get partners to trial the truck, and this Government are a shareholder of a big company called Royal Mail, which uses a lot of trucks. Royal Mail has been asked to trial the hybrid truck, but believe it or not, Royal Mail has said no, it does not want to trial it. That is absolutely absurd. We have Royal Mail and a British truck manufacturer leading the world in clean technology with a hybrid truck, and we find that, as a shareholder, we are not putting the pressure on. I know that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will take that on board and rattle the cages of Royal Mail, and certainly the Secretary of State's cage too. It is important that if we have a good product, we use it, develop it and export it.

I do go on about our armed forces and how brave they are-I touched on that at the beginning of my remarks-and about the tragedy of what is happening. The Royal British Legion has launched an election manifesto. I know that a lot of MPs have signed up to it-I dare say that a lot of candidates will as well-and it is important that we register our support. The Royal British Legion is calling for an independent legal advisory service for bereaved armed forces families and an independent advisory committee on military deaths to give the families a voice. It is also issuing a call to keep the armed forces compensation scheme under continual review, to bring all single and family accommodation up to the highest standards, to introduce health screening for all service personnel and to introduce more effective prevention and treatment strategies to tackle mental health problems, drinking and drug abuse, as well as calling for support after people leave the armed forces. That fits in with the convention that we expect to see followed. Quite rightly, the Royal British Legion is championing the rights of our armed forces. It is only right that we put support for that on the record.

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