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Even the former chairman of the Police Federation has, in a Home Office-commissioned report, criticised the complex organisational and decision-making structure at the top of the policing system, which generates confusion about accountability among police officers. I
must say that although the Independent Police Complaints Commission is very well led, in reality its judgments have no teeth. Any judgment is simply given to the chief constable, who does not seem to be responsible to anyone. I cannot see the purpose of Essex police authority.
As we all know, the cost to the country of the war in Afghanistan and our previous involvement in Iraq has been very high, not just financially, but-much more importantly-in the loss of young lives. Many of us had the honour of greeting troops returning from Afghanistan last month. They are doing an incredible job under very difficult circumstances. Last Monday we lost the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan, and two more have been killed recently.
All of us are watching the Chilcot inquiry very carefully, but however soft the questioning is, it seems certain that the previous Prime Minister did not tell the truth to the House of Commons about why we should get involved with Iraq. The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, said that the ex-Prime Minister engaged in an "alarming subterfuge" with the then American President. The former Prime Minister has now told us, in an interview with a celebrity, that he would have gone to war regardless of whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. I am one of those Conservative Members of Parliament who were stupid enough to believe what the then Prime Minister said, but it was not his choice to make; it was the choice of this House of Commons. It is an absolute disgrace that he has come out with that statement in a soft interview with a celebrity.
I hope that when the former Prime Minister gives evidence next year, some action will be taken as a result of what he says. I think that he deliberately misled Parliament on that issue, and why oh why he was so sycophantic to the United States of America I cannot imagine. Even the new American President, who in the build-up to the American election talked about cutting troop numbers in Afghanistan, is now sending another 30,000, which is more than his predecessor sent. What is going on now is absolutely crazy. Why the American President got the Nobel peace prize, before he had done anything whatever, I do not know. Again, that astonishes me.
I am the chairman of the all-party group on solvent abuse. Solvent abuse receives very little attention, despite the fact that NHS research shows that volatile substances are the most common entry-level substances among young people who choose to take drugs. More children aged 13 and under use volatile substances than use any illegal drug. St. George's, university of London has done some excellent work in its report, "Trends in Death Associated With Abuse of Volatile Substances", and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will urge a Secretary of State to have a meeting with the all-party group.
A constituent, Mr. Congdon, has raised the issue of Vioxx with me. He very much wants compensation for UK users of Vioxx from Merck, Sharp and Dohme. Tragically, his wife died as a result of taking that prescription painkiller. From 1999 to 2004, Vioxx was widely prescribed as a painkiller for arthritis, migraines and menstruation. There have been many lawsuits in America, but in this country nothing whatever has been done about giving compensation.
Another constituent, Kevin Jones, raised with me the issue of tax credits. Having phoned the so-called helpline, I could not have found the person who answered to be ruder. When I said, "This is a helpline," and told her that I was an MP, she said, "So what?" If anyone wants proof of how diminished we are out there, there it is, on the so-called helpline. What has happened with tax credit claims that were overpaid is an absolute shambles and has certainly caused enormous difficulties for many constituents.
Last Friday I met the Southend Association of Voluntary Services, whose job it is to advise and support local not-for-profit groups. It does a wonderful job under difficult circumstances. However, as with many third sector organisations, budget cuts have forced the association to cut down on a number of its activities. One of the most worthwhile projects that it runs is the vinvolved project, a volunteering project for 16 to 25-year-olds. The funding is secured only until March 2011, and I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House could see what she can do to encourage the Treasury and others to give that excellent organisation some support.
Last week I spoke at the National Audit Office's rheumatoid arthritis conference, in my capacity as the joint chairman of the all-party group on inflammatory arthritis. A National Audit Office report entitled "Services for people with rheumatoid arthritis" was published in July, and it makes it clear that services are very patchy throughout the country. I hope that the Health Secretary will do whatever he can to bolster support for people suffering from arthritis.
During the summer Adjournment debate, I raised the issue of seat belts. We all remember the row that took place in the House when we first voted to make seat belts compulsory. A number of Members of Parliament thought that it was not the right thing to do, although it turned out to be completely the right thing to do. However, some people, in order to be more comfortable, do not wear their seat belts as they should. Instead of the collar bone taking the full force in an accident, damage can be done to the ribcage and to vital internal organs. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on my concerns on that issue to the Secretary of State for Transport.
We often think about animals at Christmas time, and I hope that there will not be the usual number of unwanted pets this year. I was recently at a gathering organised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare to celebrate the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. That organisation does a wonderful job of looking after animal welfare. As the animals are unable to speak for themselves, I hope that at this time we will do all that we can to support their welfare and to ensure that there are not too many unwanted pets this Christmas. I join all others in wishing everyone a very happy Christmas and a much better new year.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab):
Last Tuesday, I was called by an excited researcher from one of my local radio stations who asked me if I was aware that Leicester had been named as the crime capital of the east midlands. While I was trying to catch my breath, following that astonishing announcement, the young researcher went on to tell me that it was a city in which
public services do not work well together and in which not enough was being done to tackle the major problems that many local people face. She also told me that people's health was worse there than anywhere else in the east midlands, and that too many of them were dying early- [ Interruption. ] Yes, it sounds like Essex, doesn't it?
I simply did not recognise the city from the description that the researcher was giving me, although I would not suggest for a moment that it is without problems. When I had caught my breath, I asked her for the source of her information. She told me that it was the Audit Commission. As a former member of the Audit Commission, I took that fairly seriously and agreed to go on air to talk about the matter. Before doing so, I did some research into the background.
The description had come from a person called Mary Perry, who is rather grandly titled the Oneplace spokesperson for Leicester. I understand that she is also the Oneplace spokesperson for a number of other places in the east midlands. My research allowed me at least to understand the context of the description. The work that it was announcing is very worth while. It is an attempt to bring together the results of the various inspection regimes that look at local authorities, including the Audit Commission-the lead body involved-the Quality Care Commission, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons and Ofsted, and to bring all the data that they produce in their reports together in one place, to make it accessible to the public on a single website. That is of course very welcome.
It is some years since I was a member of the Audit Commission. At that time, we used to look forward to the prospect of what was then described-it might still be-as joined-up inspection. That would involve bringing the various regimes together in a way that made sense to the bodies that were being inspected, and to the public, on whose behalf the inspections were taking place.
The principles that the Audit Commission followed then, and does now, involve ensuring that the performance indicators used in the inspections are relevant, that they avoid creating perverse incentives, and that the conclusions that are drawn at the end of the inspection processes are firmly evidence-based. Of course, in looking at the inspection, as I hope the Audit Commission and the other regimes that inspect our local authorities and our local bodies now do, I hope that the approach will be robust and independent when necessary, while also being a critical friend rather than a hostile outsider when that is the more appropriate approach.
It was with that in mind that I looked at the news release from which the researcher was drawing a picture of the city of Leicester. Indeed, Mary Perry, this Oneplace spokesperson for Leicester, described the city as one where the partnership
"is not giving crime a high priority."
"Recent crime figures are the worst in the East Midlands. Community safety partners need to work together more effectively to reduce crime and make the city safer for local people."
I have to say that that description of the city is not one that those involved in the various partnerships and bodies that provide services to the city would recognise-and it is certainly not one that I recognise either. It does not represent what any reasonable person who knows the city would consider to be a balanced judgment about it and the services it receives. The press release is based on broad generalisations and contains, frankly, headline-grabbing snippets. No doubt that was done with the very best of intentions and no doubt it was done with the intention of drawing people's attention to the launch of the new initiative, to the website that lies behind it and the overview that it seeks to give. Frankly, however, it does nothing for the reputation of the Audit Commission or the other inspectorates that contributed to it.
The Audit Commission has raised a lot of questions about the data lying behind the news release that described Leicester in that way and led the researcher to conclude that the city was the "crime capital" of the east midlands, but it has not helped to point the way to those who seek to find answers to the questions, which include: what sort of crime figures-are they recorded crime figures, reported crime figures, or crime figures as perceived by the victims of those crimes? None of those questions is answered, so I believe that to be shoddy work from the Audit Commission.
It would indeed be perverse if Leicestershire constabulary, which has such an excellent record of encouraging people to report crimes and of encouraging its officers to record them when they are reported, were to be penalised as a result of the success of those policies on encouraging the reporting and recording of crimes, yet that is precisely the sort of conclusion that the casual reader would reach from that news release. It would also be perverse indeed if this led to Leicestershire constabulary doing what I understand other constabularies sometimes do-actually encouraging people not to report and officers not to record crimes. It seems to me that, on this occasion, the Audit Commission has made a serious mistake in the way it has sought to promote that new website and the excellent initiative in which it plays a lead part.
I have tried to look behind the figures, but in looking at the website, I have frankly not been able to find out how those conclusions were reached or what sort of crime figures were used in reaching them. I have discovered from talking to those who are part of the community safety partnership in Leicester that there are a lot of very unhappy and very committed people who were involved in the promotion of community safety in the city, but who are deeply disappointed, deeply upset and deeply distressed by the resulting publicity that followed the news release.
I am deeply unhappy by the approach that has been adopted. I am particularly unhappy because, while it may get a headline, it certainly does not do justice to the city, and it certainly does not do justice to those who are concerned for its well-being.
The Audit Commission and the other inspectors have come up with a very simplistic way of describing services in the city of Leicester and, indeed, in other local authority areas up and down the land. It boils down to the use of flags: red flags and green flags. Other hon. Members may well be familiar with such arrangements in their areas. While the use of such simplistic devices may be attractive in terms of drawing attention to things-for instance, the new website-it is over-simplistic in this context, and difficult to justify.
I have noted the green flags given to the areas around Leicester, and the lack of green flags relating to any of the services in Leicester itself; I have noted the red flags given to the areas around Leicester, and the red flags given to the city itself; and I have reached the conclusion that the choice of green or red flags is entirely subjective.
Dr. Pugh: There has been a certain amount of mission creep in the Audit Commission. Perhaps it should stick to what it is supposed to be doing, examining councils' finances-or perhaps not, following the "Icelandic saga" fiasco.
Sir Peter Soulsby: For a long time the Audit Commission has had a much wider role than that of simply examining the finances of local authorities, which was originally the role of the District Audit Service. It has been given that wider role by both the last Government and this one. I think it has long aspired to bring some order to the plethora of inspection regimes covering local services, and I think it is right to wish to do that, but I believe that on this occasion it has gone too far in its enthusiasm for bringing order and simplicity, and has over-simplified.
The work that the Audit Commission has done is unreasonable in the circumstances. There is a total lack of consistency in the way in which it has presented Leicester and other local authority areas, and it has left unanswered far more questions than it has answered. Its approach has done a disservice to Leicester, and to its own work on behalf of recipients of services in Leicester and other areas.
As I have said, it is vital for inspectors who look at cities such as Leicester and other towns, cities and counties up and down the land to seek performance indicators that are relevant and avoid perverse incentives. Above all, they must ensure that their conclusions are firmly based on evidence. The flag system that the inspectors have used and the press releases that they have issued do not meet those tests. They do not demonstrate a regime that is robust and independent, and they certainly do not demonstrate one with an entirely objective approach. This is not a regime that appears to be a critical friend rather than a hostile or even bullying outsider.
The Audit Commission, and those involved in the other inspection regimes, should look closely at the way in which they have handled the launch of the Oneplace initiative. Although the initiative has much to commend it, they need to recognise that a single snapshot-which is how they themselves have described the work that they are doing-can be simplistic and even damaging. It may produce a headline for them, but it does not get anywhere near the truth as it is actually experienced by people in the city of Leicester or, I would suggest, elsewhere.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD):
First, may I follow the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) in wishing everyone present a happy Christmas, just in case I forget to do so at the end of my
speech? As I represent a constituency in Portsmouth, which has one of the largest populations of service personnel, may I also wish all our service personnel around the world a happy Christmas, and in particular may I wish those who are in Afghanistan a peaceful and pleasant festive season? I also want to wish service personnel families a happy Christmas, as this can be a very difficult period for them, and assure them that the thoughts of the entire House-of Members of all parties-are with them.
I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, too. I doubt if its work has been as important as it is today since it was founded in the aftermath of the first world war. I urge all Members to give their support to the British Legion in the forthcoming election. I am sure that not a single candidate in the entire country will decline to back it, but let us set an example by backing it first now.
I should also declare an interest, as I want to talk about certain issues affecting the city of Portsmouth and, as is stated in the Register of Members' Financial Interests, I am a member of Portsmouth city council and its executive. The first issue is Portsmouth's serious housing problem. I agree with the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) about the importance of housing. Portsmouth's current housing problem is probably as bad as it was in 1945, when a third of the buildings in the city had been demolished or severely damaged by the Luftwaffe, sizeable chunks of it had to be bulldozed down, and tens of thousands of people were moved outside the city.
The Government have promised a lot on housing, and particularly on council housing, yet they have not delivered. We have heard the words, but they have yet to walk the walk and provide the money. Even at this late stage, as we approach a general election, I ask the Government to give powers to use section 106 moneys to improve and construct council properties, and to give local authorities back the initiative to be able to build the sorts of properties that they know they need to satisfy their housing demand. In contrast to private developers who want to build only what they know they can sell, local authorities have a responsibility to house all sorts of people, such as families of various sizes and those with lifestyle difficulties such as disabilities, who might need special adaptations in their properties. We need to free up local authorities, and we need the Government to give assistance, not cut it, as is being suggested by some commentators.
The second issue affecting Portsmouth was raised in the House yesterday: defence spending, particularly in the context of the Royal Navy. Month after month, I am depressed by the indecision and the briefings that are given or the leaks that are allowed to be made, especially about the aircraft carrier programme. One minute it is on, the next minute it may be off, or it is being reconsidered, reorganised or delayed. What effect do Ministers think that sort of indecision has on the morale of the work force in Portsmouth who have been loyal to the Ministry of Defence and the national interest for generations, and whose city's main industrial backbone is based on support for the MOD?
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