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A vital component of the service will be the annual financial health check, to provide people with a holistic overview of their finances. In tandem, the CFEB supports financial education through the "Learning Money Matters" programme, which offers free advice and resources to schools that want to teach personal finance education. I remind the House that finance education is currently part of the personal, social, health and economic education syllabus for key stages 1 to 4. However, I was concerned to hear that the son of my hon. Friend the Member for
Congleton did not receive that tuition as part of the syllabus. As a parent, perhaps she could get in touch with her parent governor or head teacher to ensure that it is covered in future. I was pleased to hear how the banks are interacting with local schools to provide that type of tuition.
I, too, have received an invitation to the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people. I certainly look forward to attending on 31 January, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Dr Creasy), who are the co-chairmen of the group. As a fan of Martin Lewis, who appears regularly on GMTV, I know he reaches 6.4 million people through his website and his appearances-dare I suggest that that is fewer people than are watching this debate.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) raised the issue of the HMRC settlement. As an employer, I know Cumbernauld well because the name appears on the prepaid envelopes when I send off my tax to that particular office. The office employs 1,500 staff and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that it has a key role in debt management and collection, and that there are no plans substantially to reduce numbers in that office.
As with all Departments, HMRC will deliver on its efficiency savings programme by concentrating on the core elements of the service it provides. In the case of HMRC, that means ensuring that resources are more efficiently focused on collecting revenue and providing a better service to the British taxpayer. As part of its settlement, HMRC will therefore improve the pay-as-you-earn system, so that there is greater use of real-time information, and extend its online resources to reduce the demands placed on contact centres.
HMRC will reinvest the £900 million in savings to tackle avoidance, evasion and criminal activity. Those savings will be recycled into activities working against tax avoidance, evasion and criminal attack to collect additional revenue of £7 billion per annum by 2014-15. That will deliver a more robust criminal deterrent against tax evasion and will increase the number of criminal prosecutions fivefold. There will also be a crackdown on offshore evasion, with the creation of a new dedicated team of investigators to catch those hiding offshore money. We wish to clear the backlog of PAYE cases by 2012 and stabilise the service in order to recover and improve customer service. Central to that will be undertaking the next stage of consultation on improving PAYE through the use of real-time information to bring improvements to employers and taxpayers. Of course, in the past, that has resulted in underpayments and overpayments, some of which had to be written off and some of which had to be collected at great expense.
Mr Bone: A Whip is yet again speaking at the Dispatch Box for the first time and performing better than the normal Treasury Ministers, without the backing of any official. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that. I hope to see more of it happening in the future.
Mr Goodwill: I think I will just continue. I have a very detailed brief that I am sure my right hon. Friends the Chief Secretary or the Chancellor will put into a detailed response. Given the time, I cannot go into the issues in detail, but there are a number of tables that I am sure will reassure the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. Suffice it to say, the work force and change plans are still being developed. Until those plans are completed, HMRC cannot say what the position will be on redundancies or exits.
Mr Goodwill: Yes, I am sure that that is the case. The first choice is to redeploy, but where that is not possible because of location or skills, exits will be used as a last resort. HMRC will recruit people if it cannot otherwise fill roles with people who have the right skills.
On the point about child benefit changes within a reducing settlement, the changes will be managed from within the settlement. Withdrawing child benefit from households with a higher rate taxpayer can be done within existing PAYE and self-assessment systems. HMRC will therefore not need to contact all 7.8 million households in receipt of child benefit. From a customer's perspective, that delivery option does not place a burden on all child benefit claimants; it limits the impact to those households containing higher-rate taxpayers.
On the issue of whether the law is too black and white, I stress that tax evasion cannot be tolerated wherever it occurs. I was pleased that the Finance (No.3) Act 2010 closed a number of the loopholes that meant that people were not paying the tax that they should. To be fair, those loopholes were identified by the previous Government.
Much of the debate was focused on the banking system and I am sure that we all have had horror stories brought to our attention by our constituents. One of my constituents was in the Proudfoot supermarket store making a purchase of about £5 and the checkout girl accidentally clocked up £50. That was corrected less than five minutes later, but it incurred an unauthorised overdraft fee and the bank refused to back down when contacted by me as the Member of Parliament. Fortunately, when I got the Yorkshire Post on to the issue it finally relented; such is the power of the press.
In response to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), the Government are clear that there should be more competition in the banking sector. The Independent Commission on Banking has been asked to consider reforms to the UK banking sector, including how to encourage greater competition. Following the commission's report next year, the Government will bring forward specific proposals to foster diversity and increase competition, and I am sure that that will include a role for the mutual sector. I have nothing to add to the answer given by the Financial Secretary earlier, but I am sure that he will write to the hon. Gentleman following this debate.
Mr Umunna: I raised a number of detailed questions with the Minister, responses to which have not been forthcoming. I heard with interest the views of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) about the response that the Minister is giving, bearing in mind that he has been called to do this at such short notice. However, I would be grateful if he can explain why the Financial Secretary himself is not here, as he was here only a few hours ago. Will he undertake to ensure that I get detailed responses to the issues that I have raised?
Mr Goodwill: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. First, this has not happened at short notice-it has always been the plan for me to answer this debate. He had an opportunity earlier at Treasury questions to raise specific issues when the majority of the team were there. I am aware that I have only less than a minute left, which is why I want to move on to the next point. I am sure that he will get a detailed response, particularly about the way in which the banks, which are now largely in the public sector, are sold on or whatever. The Government will no doubt be looking at the best value for the taxpayer as well as the best service to business and individuals. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will write to him, and we will be making further announcements in the House at an appropriate time.
On the withdrawal of cheque facilities, it is true that the number of cheques issued has declined dramatically. More than 11 million cheques were written in 1990, and that figure declined to 3.5 million in 2009. A provisional date of 31 October 2018 has been set for the withdrawal of cheque facilities, with a final decision to be made by 2016. I, too, have received a letter from a constituent, which arrived this morning. It is from Mrs Hunter of Whitby, who tells me that she is over 90 years old and does not possess a computer or a laptop, or even a mobile phone or any credit or debit card, and so will find it very difficult to send money through the post to her family at Christmas or to make payments to charities. Her local post office, which was within walking distance, was closed when the previous Government were in office, so a journey to the Yorkshire building society or the Co-op would require a taxi journey or a bus ride. She is very concerned that elderly people without recourse to cheques will not find it easy to make payments. Similarly, many small businesses find the cheque system very convenient.
The Government believe that suitable alternatives must be in place for all users of cheques before the system can be phased out, and they welcome the new commitments made by the banking industry on 7 December. In those commitments, the industry recognises the importance of having in place proper alternatives to cheques for those who rely on them most, such as the elderly, the housebound, charities and small businesses. The industry has said that a potential alternative to cheque facilities may include a paper system. Of course, if cheques were to be phased out, it would also be the end of the famous phrase, "The cheque is in the post."
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have a very peaceful and comfortable Christmas, and let us look forward to a productive new year for the coalition Government.
Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the way in which one area in my constituency, Devonshire Park, is being treated. It feels that it is under attack from the planning system. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who has responsibility for such matters, is present. I will end by making a constructive suggestion of how Devonshire Park could be a pilot under the Government's Localism Bill.
Devonshire Park is a small part of Birkenhead, which began to be built during Disraeli's great reforming Government. It was that Government who, in the late 1870s, forged a new tradition for the Tory party. That was the beginning of one-nation Toryism. While Disraeli was doing that great work here in Westminster, the burghers of Birkenhead were building up their town. This small part of Birkenhead is rather finely built: the houses are set back from the road, are mainly detached or semi-detached and are large, decent family houses with gardens. The walls, which are such a feature of Birkenhead, are particularly interesting in this area, because much of the stone came from the nearby Storeton quarry.
It would still be a most peaceful community, but times change. A quarter of its 477 houses have been made into flats. That is double the proportion in the nation as a whole. That is not what worries my constituents the most, nor does it worry them that the houses make very good residential care homes for frail elderly people from Birkenhead and beyond. What worries my constituents is the number of homes that have been converted for institutional care use, such as rehab centres and support units for single mothers. My constituents feel that having 16 such institutions in such a small area begins to change the character of the local neighbourhood. They are not nimbys and are not saying that they do not want any such institutions in their back garden; they are just saying that they have rather a large number. They oppose developers who try to buy up property to convert yet more family homes into centres for use by institutions.
"community that other areas would aspire to."
He, like me, wants the community to grow in spirit, so that it protects what it has and builds on it. The area is under attack, not from the normal forces of yobbish and criminal behaviour, but from developers. The area is targeted by developers who wish to buy up the homes and to create more institutional care homes, adding to the 16 that already operate in the area. I have already made the distinction between institutions such as drug rehab centres and support centres for single mums, and the residential care homes that do not trouble the local community.
I hope that the Government's Localism Bill will come to the community's rescue. From reading the Bill, I am not sure whether the Government have yet settled on their views in all areas. I therefore want to be positive and suggest that Devonshire Park would like to be No. 1 on the Government's list to try out the neighbourhood development plans and neighbourhood development
orders that are mentioned in the Bill. Across the country, there are examples of conservation areas, where the physical environment is protected. The Devonshire Park residents association wants the Government to consider whether we can use the neighbourhood development plans and orders in the Bill to move from protecting the physical environment to protecting the character of an area.
We all know that as we can kill people in different ways, so can we kill areas in different ways. There can be planning blight or local authority neglect, or we might have earthquake or fire. Alternatively, an area can come under attack from developers who, like the thief in the night, are constantly looking out for the opportunity to change the very nature of an incredibly strong community, which makes it feel under attack. My view is that the Localism Bill might ride to the rescue of such communities. I hope that the Minister might give my constituents hope that they can be the first through his door, suggesting how they would like the idea of a local development plan to become reality and protect them and people in similar areas of the country.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), recently made a written statement about the award of jubilee city status in 2012. That continues a practice of creating new cities that was seen at the times of the Queen's silver and golden jubilees and the millennium celebrations.
The granting of city status to existing large towns or urban districts reflects changes in Britain's demography. After all, the original definition of a city was a large town with a cathedral. Many cathedrals were built in the middle ages, and thus the status of many cities in no small part reflects their historic importance. It is therefore much to be commended that the diamond jubilee provides an opportunity to create new cities and to recognise the changing identity of where people live.
However, city status is partly a celebratory designation and does not change the status of a place for the purposes of the Local Government Act 1972 or any subsequent amendments to it. I would hope that the diamond jubilee could also provide an opportunity to recognise the historic identity of many of England's larger towns that do not aspire to be described as cities but would welcome back the right to be described as boroughs.
The English and Welsh boroughs played an important part in our nation's history. Borough status was granted by the Crown by royal charter because a town had achieved significant status or for particular achievements, and boroughs were entitled to return Members of Parliament. Most could return two Members, although under their charters a handful could return only one. Banbury became an episcopal borough way back in the time of the Plantagenets, and it was granted a royal charter for borough status by Queen Mary Tudor in 1554. Under that charter it was entitled to return a single Member to Parliament, and I am thus the 46th Member of Parliament for Banbury. A subsequent charter was granted by James I in 1608.
If colleagues take a walk through Central Lobby to St Stephen's entrance and look up at the window, they will see there in stained glass the coats of arms of the boroughs at the time when the House was rebuilt after the fire. There, immediately opposite the statue of Somers, are the coats of arms of Banbury, because at that time it was recognised that the English boroughs were part of the fabric of our nation.
The reorganisation of local government in the early 1970s broadly divided England into two tiers, counties and districts. It was decided that only districts could have the opportunity of describing themselves as boroughs. Effectively, the only boroughs remaining are those communities that, at the time of the 1972 Act, were large enough as boroughs to become stand-alone district authorities. Smaller boroughs such as Banbury were wiped off the map and given no more than charter trustee status. In other words, the district councillors who represented the former borough of Banbury were designated as trustees of the borough's charter. It was only comparatively recently that former boroughs such as Banbury were able to acquire town council status, which is the equivalent of being a parish council.
I can report to Ministers that, since Banbury acquired town council status, there has been a considerable regeneration of civic and community activity. Banbury is an English market town that is proud of its history and traditions and the history of our nation, as shown by the fact that it is, so far as I know, the only town in Oxfordshire that, every year since 1940, has held a battle of Britain service and parade to give thanks for England's deliverance at the battle of Britain.
Banbury does not aspire to be a city, but it is the largest town in Oxfordshire after the city of Oxford, and it would like to be recognised for what it always has been-an English borough. Banbury does not aspire in any way to compete with Cherwell district. Indeed, as local residents, we are proud to be part of Cherwell and of Cherwell's achievements. It is a distinctive area of England.
More than 40 years have passed since the 1972 Act, and there is no risk of anyone becoming confused between a Banbury borough council and Cherwell district council, just as no one is confused between Banbury town council and Cherwell district council. Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government state that, under the 1972 Act, only district councils can become boroughs. I understand that point, but I want to tell my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that I have a solution.
As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office made clear, the creation of new jubilee cities will be done not under an Act of Parliament, but by exercise of the royal prerogative. On exactly the same principle, I suggest that the Queen could exercise the royal prerogative to create jubilee boroughs. Any town in England with former borough status could apply to become a jubilee borough. That would not require an amendment to the 1972 Act. There would be no confusion between jubilee borough celebratory designation and boroughs that are district councils. It would enable recognition of an important part of English civil life and cost not a single penny-
I want to speak about the housing market renewal programme or, more accurately, the Government's scrapping of it. On 17 May, the Chancellor announced that the Government would implement £6.2 billion of in-year cuts. Further details were announced seven days later, outlining £1.65 billion in local government funding cuts. The harsh reality for the housing market renewal programme became clear a month later in a written ministerial statement, which revealed that it was targeted for cuts. The comprehensive spending review later revealed that there would be no bespoke funding for housing market renewal beyond March 2011. That is in stark contrast with the previous funding settlement of £1.2 billion between 2002 and 2008, and a further £1 billion from 2008 to 2011.
The programme was introduced in 2002, and I am particularly proud of it, not least because it was the flagship regeneration scheme of my predecessor, Lord Prescott. The intention was to renew failing housing markets, improve neighbourhoods and encourage people to live and work in those areas. Gateway's success in my area speaks for itself. More than 1,500 homes were refurbished, thereby improving lives and transforming disadvantaged neighbourhoods; 615 new energy-efficient homes were created; more than 800 families were moved to decent homes; more than 300 local jobs, as well as dozens of apprenticeships, were created, and more than 600 of the worst properties in the east and west of the city have been demolished.
The effects of the Tory-led Government policy for residents in my constituency and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) have been disastrous. People have been left to live in houses surrounded by derelict properties, with damp seeping under the carpet, and decaying walls and floors. They have been left surrounded by abandoned properties, which are subject to vandalism. The elderly have found themselves stranded in boarded-up estates. Children are playing in dangerous and filthy conditions, while their parents have had their hopes and dreams stolen. Joanne Turton, a constituent, described her situation as living in limbo and as absolute cruelty. She asked me what she and her family have done to deserve that treatment.
My constituents do not care about party politics or political point scoring, or about where the fault lies-they are desperate for answers-but I do not share their restraint. As far as I am concerned, the blame lies firmly with the Tory and Lib Dem Government, which is why it is their responsibility to clean up the mess.
At the onset of this situation, I wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government to express my concerns, and to invite the Housing and Local Government Minister to visit my constituents to see the damage for himself. Not surprisingly, the response to my invitation was that his diary is full and that he could not come to see the mess. I received a sort of response, but that underlined the absolute mess of the policy. There is a complete lack of a plan B, and there are no contingency, exit or transitional plans.
The suggestion was that the £1.4 billion regional growth fund would cover the loss of funding resulting from the abolition of regional development agencies, and cuts in funding to transport, housing and other Departments. However, £1.4 billion is simply not enough, and it clearly does not help my constituents, who deserve better than insubstantial answers and pretend solutions. Those who were selling properties have experienced a substantial decrease in the value of their homes, and those who were renting have been left with substandard housing. It is an utter disgrace to leave people in those conditions-to steal their dreams, hopes and dignity. One constituent described it thus: "It's like we'd packed our suitcases to emigrate to our dream destination. We are on the flight and all's well. We're at 36,000 feet when the Government changes hands, and the new Prime Minister orders the captain to turn off the engines as we are about to prepare for landing, leaving absolute carnage."
I contacted my local authority yesterday, when it confirmed that it needs £9 million to sort this mess out. Will the Minister tell me and my constituents what he will do to ensure that they enjoy a worry-free Christmas and a happy new year?
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the Localism Bill, which is a fantastic early Christmas present for Northamptonshire. My constituents now hold out the hope once again that they can control the over-development and lack of infrastructure in their community, which was a feature of the past decade or more. Northamptonshire was part of a regional spatial strategy. It was decided that it should be the fastest-growing county in the country, but we have been poorly served by a lack of infrastructure in schools, hospitals, roads and access roads to deal with the amount of housing that has been forced upon us.
The West Northamptonshire Development Corporation took control not only of the planning strategy for housing, but of planning itself-away from Northampton borough and Towcester-and local residents have had to sit on their hands while feeling a distinct lack of local democracy in the planning that has been forced on them. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on deciding to get rid of the RSS and to scrap the WNDC as soon as possible. In the year ending 2010, the WNDC spent almost £20 million of taxpayers' money, but local people have very little to show for it.
As well as that top-down control, we also had the West Northamptonshire joint planning committee forced on us by a statutory instrument in 2008. Although technically owned by the local councils, the committee has been required to come up with a plan to build up to 20,000 new houses in my constituency, many of them on green-field sites, including beautiful villages that were listed in the Domesday book, such as Collingtree, Denton, Brafield-on-the-Green and Hackleton. I am grateful to Front-Bench colleagues who visited my constituency before and after the election to try to set at ease the minds of people who felt that their communities would be ruined. I hope that the committee will not progress any such plans. Indeed, it received 6,000 complaints from local residents about its proposed strategy.
The problem is how we get from where we are today to where we want to be after the Localism Bill is on the statute book. Our problem is that some of the councils want to get rid of the West Northamptonshire joint planning committee now and others are afraid of creating a planning vacuum if we walk away from the committee but have nothing to put in its place. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify how we can move from the present situation, with the West Northamptonshire joint planning committee still in place, to where we want to be-with a local development framework and with local communities deciding how much housing they should have and where it should be. The gap could be as much as eight to 12 months, and councillors are very concerned about what might happen with developer options on sites in the event that we no longer have a top-down plan in the absence of the bottom-up framework. That is a key question for my hon. Friend the Minister.
In Northamptonshire, we are beset by wind farm applications. We are not a very windy county, but my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and I have some 15 wind farm applications between us, many in beautiful areas where communities are desperately unhappy about them. Is there any scope in the Localism Bill to include greater opportunity for local communities to have their say and influence both the location and number of wind turbines? We need to introduce renewable energy in Britain, and it will form a key part of our energy security in the years to come, but we need far greater accountability so that local communities can have their say and be a part of the planning process from the bottom up, rather than being told what to do by top-down government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It has been a wide-ranging debate, which perhaps reflects the remit of the Department. I shall try to address the issues raised by hon. Members in order.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made a characteristically graceful speech which argued a serious point. I have a lot of sympathy with the issue that he raised, and I was of course especially taken by the historical context and his reference to Disraeli. It may be of some comfort to him to learn that a portrait of Disraeli sits behind my desk-
Robert Neill: He is indeed keeping an eye on me. I have long suspected that the right hon. Gentleman and I would both be comfortable within the tradition that Disraeli founded, but I shall not ask him to change his position too much in the Chamber just before Christmas.
The right hon. Gentleman made a serious point about repeat planning applications and gave some serious examples of what has happened in his constituency. I have had similar examples in my constituency and I suspect that many right hon. and hon. Members could
say the same. Many of us have heard horror stories of communities-and, indeed, local authorities themselves-sometimes feeling worn down by repeated applications from the same developer on the same site. The right hon. Gentleman has seen that with particular types of development in his constituency, and I have certainly had to do battle on behalf of my constituents over repeat applications to develop back gardens, for example. That is a real threat in many suburban areas. It is important, therefore, that we take steps to prevent the system from being abused.
People of course have a right to make planning applications, but there are measures, to which I will come now, with which we can seek to control them. At the moment, a local planning authority can decline to determine a planning application, if it has refused permission for two "substantially similar" applications on the same site, or if one such application has been refused by the Secretary of State on appeal within the past two years. It is worth reminding local authorities, and members of planning committees and their officers, that they are entitled to use that safeguard, and not to be browbeaten, perhaps, in some circumstances. The relevant provisions are in sections 70A and 70B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended.
The decision on whether an application is the same or substantially the same, and therefore on whether a determination can be refused, is for the local planning authority. Obviously, it has to take care, because it is justiciable, but provided that it acts within the context of public law in decision making, that safeguard is open to them. It is a discretionary power, however, and does not preclude an amended application from being made-once a developer has listened and addressed objections, as I hope would be the case-that does not fall foul of the provisions,.
I can confirm to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead that the Government intend to apply similar principles to neighbourhood plans drawn up under the Localism Bill. The Bill would allow local authorities to decline to consider a repeat proposal for a neighbourhood development order-the mechanism for, in effect, giving consent under the Bill. I hope that his point has been taken on board in that regard.
Robert Neill: The Localism Bill would create the concept of a neighbourhood plan, which could be incorporated in Birkenhead borough council's statutory development document-its planning framework, as it is generally called. It would permit residents of Devonshire Park to apply to the local council to be recognised, as I am sure they would be in these circumstances, as a neighbourhood forum for the purposes of producing a neighbourhood plan. That would enable them to set out their vision for the area, which, subject to a referendum and getting support from their fellow residents, the local planning authority would incorporate into its plans, unless there were strategic reasons to the contrary.
That would be a significant safeguard that would enable residents to put in place protection against particular types of development, if they thought they were not
sustainable. It would, of course, have to be consistent with national policy that we will be setting out in the national planning policy framework, and with our support for sustainable development. However, it is exactly the sort of vehicle that the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents are seeking. I would be happy to talk to him as the Bill progresses to ensure that he and his constituents are in a position to take advantage of the provisions.
I also hope, of course, owing to the requirement in the Bill for pre-application discussions on any scheme of any significance, that developers themselves will recognise and take heed of the concerns and aspirations of local communities, and adjust their developments accordingly. We are trying to move to a much more collaborative and front-loaded approach to planning, rather than repeat applications and the threat of a decision by appeal at the end. I am happy to keep the right hon. Gentleman informed on progress on those matters.
Let me now go back further than the Disraeli period-to the Plantagenets, as I understand it-and address the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I am sure that he was not there at the time, but he has a degree of erudition that clearly indicates that he has gone that far back in researching a borough status for Banbury. Those of us who watch "Lark Rise to Candleford" will be well aware of the status of Banbury within Oxfordshire, and not just as the home of Banbury cakes, but as a major town. I understand the sense of where my hon. Friend is coming from, because we as a Government recognise civic pride as a valuable part of the big society. That said, these things are not quite as easy as one might wish. My hon. Friend is a distinguished lawyer, and he is quite right about the constraints on achieving the ambition that he set out.
At the current time it is not possible for any authority, other than a district council, to become a borough. There may be no confusion among the residents of his area about Cherwell district council and a borough of Banbury, but I would not like to guarantee that that would apply everywhere else. [ Interruption. ] I see the right hon. Member for Birkenhead smiling. One can just imagine the confusion about what was the historic borough of Birkenhead and the borough of Wirral, of which it is now a part. I can see the same thing happening in my constituency, with confusion about the former borough of Bromley and the current borough of Bromley, one of which is much larger than the other, which happens to lie within it. Things are not quite so simple, so we will have to be a careful. We will of course consider the position, but the route suggested is not to create a new type of borough, which could confuse people even more. Rather, if Banbury wishes, it can apply for city status under the jubilee provisions.
We do not want to be a city; we want to be a jubilee borough. It is not the same as wanting designation under the Local Government Act 1972; it is something completely different. If, as with cities, Ministers
are not willing to pursue that under the royal prerogative, we will have to petition the Privy Council and see where we get. The proposal will not cost anything. I just hope that Ministers will show a little more imagination.
Robert Neill: I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but he will understand that it is difficult to pluck out one case. Banbury can call itself a town council-it has a mayor, and civic regalia and plate, and it can use its coat of arms. I hope that he will reflect on the matter, if that is not a proportionate solution.
Let me turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and the pathfinders. It is fair to say that Hull city council will receive more than £23 million this year to take forward projects in east and west Hull. Of course there have had to be reductions, but I am sorry-the hon. Gentleman made the only speech that sounded a vaguely partisan note-but responsibility for that ultimately lies with those who created the difficulty and the deficit that we now have to deal with. There are other options open in housing market renewal areas, and local authorities can continue to apply to the regional growth fund. There is also the new homes bonus and the new affordable rent programme, including new empty home funding, so there are other options available. Indeed, I note that Hull is working on a local enterprise partnership, which I believe will also open up real opportunities. We want that taken forward, but that cannot be done under the previous, unsustainable financial position. I understand the difficulties, but Hull is being imaginative, and the local enterprise partnerships will offer it real opportunities.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), the Localism Bill is coming forward very soon. Localism will enable neighbourhood plans to have regard to issues such as wind farm development. Our reforms will apply equally to wind farms that are considered under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which of course have to be consistent with national policy, as I have said. We are also taking steps on changing planning structures, and if my hon. Friend keeps in touch with me on those matters, I hope that we will be able to discuss how to translate the existing, top-down structures into something more democratic. The Localism Bill's proposal to abolish the regional spatial strategies will give much greater scope to local authorities such as hers to develop in the right place, and in a way that is appropriate to the context of local communities.
Having dealt with that, may I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all hon. Members a very happy Christmas. If anyone is short of a present-the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East will be glad to know this-the Department for Communities and Local Government still has some 5,000 branded Office of the Deputy Prime Minister promotional biros available.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Thank you very much, Minister. I am sure that we all want to wish you and all other Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. Perhaps we shall want to reflect on the question of the biros, however.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I know that it is the festive season, but it is customary in the Chamber for Members to stand up to indicate that they wish to speak. I hope that any reluctance to do so is not due to any early celebrations. I call Valerie Vaz.
In 1948, a tired world, exhausted after two world wars, did the right thing when it came together to proclaim the universal declaration of human rights. The concept was simple: it was to reaffirm the faith
"in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women",
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
In 1998, the United Kingdom passed the Human Rights Act, which merely enshrined the European convention on human rights in British law. We were one of the first nations to sign the convention in 1950. The Foreign Secretary stated at the weekend that he wants to increase Britain's influence in the world, but we cannot take our place on the world stage while making a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act.
Members will also be aware of the doctrine of the margin of appreciation that applies to interpreting the convention. It provides for a range of discretion, under which the convention can be interpreted differently in different member states, to take into account cultural, historical and philosophical differences between Europe and the nation in question, so there is no need to be fearful of the Act.
I am sure that the whole House will agree that the dignity and worth of a person is important, and that equality is a goal worth pursuing, yet there are millions of men and women who struggle silently for equality at great personal cost. In Iran, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is still awaiting her fate. The signatories to the open letter in The Times to the president and supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and a letter from 119 Members of this House to the Iranian Government have called on them to free her. The charges against her have changed. Her lawyer has had to flee. Her son has been arrested, as have German nationals. The German Bundestag has now passed a resolution to engage with the Iranian Government to lift the death penalty. Ashtiani's human rights, like her testimony, count for less than a man's. The man who was her co-accused is free and does not face the daily torture that she does of not knowing whether she is to live or die. We call on the Iranian Government to start the new year by resolving to free her.
Men and women both suffer human rights violations, but the position is more difficult for women, because 70% of the worlds illiterate people are female, and 75% of the world's refugees and internally displaced persons are female. Women also face barriers, which give them less access to legal institutions, for example. In Burma, the recent release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was internationally welcomed and celebrated, but with the failing economic situation there are high volumes of
human trafficking, especially of women and girls. These are the 21st century slaves, and we should be outraged in the same way as William Wilberforce was in this House. The enslavement of girls and women into prostitution is demeaning, offensive and undertaken by coercion.
Women are routinely subjected to genital mutilation in countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, and the effect is now being seen here. This is not a religious issue; it reflects deep-rooted inequalities between the sexes and extreme discrimination against women. Worst of all, it is carried out on the voiceless: babies and young girls. The Female Genial Mutilation Act 2003 must be enforced, but other techniques should also be used to educate people and to explain to those countries that this is not an acceptable practice.
In 1990, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote of the 100 million missing women. He noted that women lived longer than men in most circumstances. Even poorer countries in Latin America and Africa have more females than males. In places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they disappear. China has 107 males for every 100 females; in India, the figure is 108, and in Pakistan, 111. Kerala, which has championed the education of women, has the same excess of females as the United States, however.
In 2001, the World Bank argued that promoting gender equality was crucial to combating global poverty. The Self Employed Women's Association was founded in India in 1972, and, by supporting women who are starting businesses, has achieved staggering success in raising living standards. Other initiatives, such as the "Because I am a Girl" campaign-Members may be aware that it organised a display in the Committee Corridor-are attempting to break the cycle of gender discrimination and poverty through education and targeted support. Such projects and initiatives help women to achieve their rightful place in societies that put them at risk following conflicts that render them victims. The transformation of those women's lives also transforms destabilised societies.
The principles of the universal declaration of human rights can be implemented through the empowerment of women through education and the use of micro-finance to give them equality. I believe that the struggle for gender equality is the moral challenge of this century, and that the future of the world depends on it.
I have a business background, and I am pleased to note that the Government have put support for business at the heart of their plan to rebalance our economy. They seem truly to value innovation and enterprise. The success of businesses of all sizes will be vital to our recovery. I have been fortunate enough to visit and meet representatives of many businesses in my constituency-that is one of the most interesting and informative parts of the role that I play-but all the company representatives whom I have met have highlighted particular challenges that they face in the current economic climate.
Places such as Basildon and Thurrock have the potential to lead our recovery. I believe that they will benefit from the change of Government and the new emphasis being placed on business, and will be able to play their role as the economic powerhouses that we need them to be. I am especially delighted that the Government have recognised the vital importance of our small and medium-sized enterprises. I think that Members throughout the House agree that they will have a major role to play in our recovery, but they face particular challenges. Let me give three examples.
The first challenge is access to finance, an issue that has been raised a number of times in the House and has been much discussed. We have lost many good businesses because of lack of support from the banks, either because the banks have become too risk-averse or because they have simply not liked the sector in which those companies operate. It is worth our reminding, certainly, the publicly owned banks that they need to do much more to support our businesses: I believe that they have a moral obligation to continue to support the companies that they have supported in the past. There is also a role for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. I know of cases in which it has been too quick to pull the plug on companies, or too inflexible to recognise the cash-flow problems that small companies may face. I hope that Ministers will think about whether more can be done to support them.
The second challenge is the burden of bureaucracy, red tape and regulation that falls on small businesses. I realise that it was designed to deal with the practices of unscrupulous employers, but I think we should recognise that the vast majority of SMEs value their employees greatly and treat them very well. Regulation must find a balance between dealing with unscrupulous employers and not overburdening responsible ones.
Many SMEs now have to employ external consultants to deal with ever-changing rules and regulations. They have to pay experts to help them to understand employment law and health and safety regulations. All that adds to the cost and burden of running their companies. While I recognise that employment law and health and safety regulations are vital to protect employees, there are sometimes unforeseen consequences. For example, if there were no statutory retirement age, it would be possible for an employee of many years' standing to be dismissed on grounds of competency rather than being able to retire with dignity. Employers may not want to take this path but feel that they must in order to address their own commercial needs.
We need to make it easier for SMEs to employ people. The reality, or the perception of the reality, is that it is too difficult or too onerous to take on staff, so SMEs hold back longer than they might. I hope we will be able to find a way of easing that burden so that companies will take people on earlier and help reduce our rising or our high unemployment figures. We also need to do more to help people in the transition from unemployment to employment. In my time at work, there were occasions when we had to lend money to new starters because the cost of work was more than those people could afford as they moved from benefits to employment.
Finally, I want to encourage the Government to have a greater understanding of small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government are doing their best, but I
want them to recognise that small businesses in particular are not a homogenous mass. A small business is more like a collection of micro-businesses. A company of 10 people could comprise a salesman, a production manager, a fitter, a driver and a designer, all of whom have separate skills and separate roles. They operate within separate spheres and cannot easily pick up the slack when one of the team members is on a prolonged absence. I hope the Government will recognise that when framing future legislation.
In summary, I truly believe that the Government have the best interests of business at heart and have got off to a great start, but will they please remember that not all businesses are the same and that size really does matter? We need a different approach, depending on the scale of the business. I know that, with care, we can deliver an environment to support our businesses and firms of all sizes, and that SMEs will happily play their role in rebuilding and rebalancing our damaged economy. With our help, they will grow to enjoy the bright and prosperous new year that I know we all wish them.
The Government recently postponed a decision on the intercity express programme. A final decision is to be made in the new year. The intercity express programme will replace the rolling stock on the east coast main line and the great western line. The previous Government appointed Hitachi as the preferred bidder, and Hitachi selected Newton Aycliffe in my constituency as its preferred site at which to build a new fleet of trains if the contract goes ahead. That means the creation of British jobs, a much-needed boost to the private sector in the north-east of England and the arrival of a major manufacturer in the region.
The Government are also considering an alternative train system that would entail coupling diesel engines to electric trains, an option that would more than likely mean that the trains would be imported from abroad, offering none of the benefits to the UK economy and adding further delays as the whole project would have to go out to tender again.
If there was ever a reason why the existing rolling stock needs to be replaced, it is evident today. The east coast main line is suspended between King's Cross and Peterborough, with trains breaking down here, there and everywhere. The trains rely on overhead electric cables, and when they are down the trains stop. The Hitachi trains are bimodal, which means that they can switch from diesel to electric and vice versa when the need arises. Southeastern operates such Hitachi high speed trains, which have an excellent record in the current bad weather. That is a ringing endorsement of the technology and work force.
Given the combination of the weather and poor rolling stock, the journey home to the north-east for me and many others will not be a very pleasant experience over the next 48 hours. But what is more important is the economic impact of Hitachi's desire to move to the north-east of England. The move to Newton Aycliffe would create 800 direct jobs and more than 7,000 jobs in the supply chain, many of them in the region.
Hitachi's investment would be the biggest investment in the north-east of England since Nissan back in the 1980s. It would also tick many other boxes for the Government. It would grow the private sector. There would be a £48 return on every £1 of public investment. There is no requirement for public sector investment until after the next election, well after the scope of the present CSR. More important is the additional income to the Exchequer from the creation of so many manufacturing jobs, the average wage being between about £25,000 and £27,000. The northern TUC has published a study by the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, which revealed that such jobs at such rates of pay would generate about £13,000 per employee. In the case of the 800 jobs at Hitachi, that is £10.4 million a year in saved benefits and lost sums raised through direct and indirect taxes. If we consider the supply chain too, it has been estimated the figure would rise to over £100 million a year, a sum not to be sniffed at when we all want the deficit to be cut in a careful and structured way.
In Sedgefield, unemployment stands at 1,935. According to Government figures published last week, every unemployed person costs the Exchequer £7,800 in benefits and lost taxes. Therefore, unemployment in Sedgefield is costing the country about £15 million a year. That estimate is based on someone leaving jobseeker's allowance and earning £12,200 a year. I have two issues with that. The average wage is higher than £12,200, so the cost to the Exchequer per person unemployed will be higher. Secondly, it shows what a great paucity of ambition the Government have for those who are out of work that they believe a person will leave JSA and earn just £12,200 a year. We need real jobs with real wages and a real future. Hitachi would offer the area that, and that is why this is so important to my constituency. Hitachi coming to Newton Aycliffe would help the town fulfil its ambition. If the intercity express programme does not go ahead or the programme is ordered in from abroad, thereby exploiting British jobs, the people of the north-east will feel as if the door is being slammed on the region and on their future.
Finally, I want to thank the thousands of constituents who signed the petition supporting the Hitachi bid and the Northern TUC for its help, along with the North East chamber of commerce, Unite the Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, The Northern Echo and well over 100 companies in the region who have leant their support to the Hitachi campaign. The intercity express programme must go ahead if we are to see private sector growth in the north-east of England. The economic case has been made-more jobs, greater tax income, and the biggest investment in the region for 30-odd years. Hitachi has shown great faith in the north-east. It is time for the Government to do the same by giving the go-ahead to the intercity express programme originally proposed by the last Government and by allowing Hitachi and the north-east to get on with the job.
As a chartered surveyor and an East Anglian representing a Suffolk constituency, the provision of infrastructure takes up a lot of my time. That has been the case not just over the past seven months, but over the past 27 years. Two things that I find myself saying with great regularity are, "We don't do infrastructure well in the UK" and, in an East Anglian context, "We talk about infrastructure a lot because we don't have any." The nearest motorway to my constituency of Waveney is in Holland, and Lowestoft has been waiting 75 years for a third crossing over the water that divides the town.
Infrastructure and job creation go hand in hand. A good transport system is a prerequisite for sustained economic growth and, conversely, poor infrastructure and congestion hold back growth and the creation of jobs. Historically over the centuries, Britain has had a great record of inventing and building world-class infrastructure that underpinned economic growth, whether the creation of the canal network, the engineering work of Brunel, or the building of the railways and the London underground. More recently, our track record has been poor. There has been no long-term strategic framework, projects have the gestation period of an elephant, and to many it appears that Britain has ground to a halt, as we sit in traffic jams and wait for trains that never arrive-and, at present, planes that do not fly.
In the past, local highway authorities pursued an ongoing programme of continually improving the local road network such as through regularly building bypasses and relief roads around market towns. They stopped pursuing such an approach 20 years ago. The result, in East Anglia at least, is that there is a large backlog of work to be carried out on such schemes as the Beccles southern relief road in my constituency, the Brandon bypass in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), and the Long Stratton bypass in south Norfolk.
Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): The Brandon bypass was mentioned in my predecessor's maiden speech in 1992 as an urgent priority for the link between Suffolk and Norfolk. Although some progress has been made since, no ground has been dug. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an awful long time to wait?
Peter Aldous: My hon. Friend very much proves my point. There is a need for local highways authorities to be given greater autonomy to carry out local projects. The geography of East Anglia is such that, in many respects, the provision of good infrastructure is not easy. Ours is a sparsely populated area, with relatively small regional centres, such as Norwich, Ipswich and Colchester, interspersed with coastal and market towns, and myriad villages. Today, the case for providing good infrastructure in East Anglia is compelling. There is a need for good roads, as East Anglia has a greater reliance on private vehicles than any other UK region. The area is relatively inaccessible compared with similar regions around the world with which we are competing for inward investment. Despite those drawbacks and the relative inadequacy of infrastructure in East Anglia, its economy performs extremely well. In terms of gross domestic product, it is the third top performing region after London and the south-east, and is a positive contributor to the Exchequer. With proper investment, East Anglia could contribute a great deal more.
The time is right for Britain to resume its role as a world leader in the provision of infrastructure. I have read the Treasury's national infrastructure plan, which was published in October, so I know that the Government's policies appear to be pointing in the right direction, but they now need to see them through. The UK is one of the most expensive countries in which to build infrastructure, with engineering works here costing 60% more than they do in Germany. In East Anglia, we have the opportunity to provide a 21st century infrastructure model, and I will conclude by outlining its main features.
First, we need to tackle the pinch points on the roads and railways. I welcome the support that the Government have already given to the dualling of the final 9 miles of single carriageway on the A11 and the improvements to the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight railway line. Both those projects will bring undoubted benefits to the region and will lead to the creation of new jobs. Other projects, some of which are in my constituency, will have similar benefits. The Beccles loop on the east Suffolk railway line, which the Government are supporting, will improve accessibility, as will the other two schemes that I have mentioned-the Beccles southern relief road and the third crossing in Lowestoft. The southern relief road will open up commercial land for development and will remove lorries from the town centre, thereby enhancing the town's attraction as a shopping centre. The third crossing will have similar benefits for Lowestoft; it will open up commercial sites and help the regeneration of the town centre by reducing congestion. It will act as a catalyst for increased regeneration activity and for further investment in Lowestoft, providing an opportunity to create a perception of a positive and business-friendly location. It will enable Lowestoft to realise its full potential as an international centre for renewable energy.
There is also a need to invest in the infrastructure necessary for the energy sector to thrive. That means upgrading the electricity network, with a new offshore grid, greater interconnection with Europe and a smart grid and smart metering. The provision of superfast broadband across Suffolk and the rest of East Anglia is of crucial importance to the creation of jobs, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas. The Government's broadband strategy, which was published last month, goes a long way in setting out how that can be achieved. Suffolk needs to be in the next round of broadband pilots and I, like my fellow Suffolk MPs, will be campaigning hard for its inclusion.
Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the current state of broadband in Norfolk and Suffolk is not acceptable and is holding businesses back? In particular, some villages are complete "not spots", where broadband cannot be accessed.
I agree entirely with that observation. The other Suffolk MPs and I are building on the strategy that has been put forward by Suffolk businesses, and we will take full advantage of the presence in the county of BT, which owns much of the infrastructure and has its research centre at Martlesham. Suffolk offers a unique opportunity for BT to show what can be done in delivering comprehensive high-speed coverage across the whole county, including in those hard-to-reach areas. To move the situation forward in Suffolk, BT needs to provide information on exactly when it intends to intervene
and which exchanges in Suffolk it will upgrade. That will allow other, smaller providers to work on a bottom-up basis to consider which of the remaining areas they will be able to reach.
My Christmas message to the Government is to thank them for providing the framework for a 21st century infrastructure, and to urge them to make the necessary investment in East Anglia, so that we can play our part in securing the recovery, rebalancing the economy and creating new private sector jobs.
Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Have you had any indication that the Business Secretary intends to come to the Chamber this afternoon to make a statement on his policy on News Corporation's bid to take full control of BSkyB? As you may be aware, it is reported today that the Secretary of State has said that he has
"declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win."
Given that he is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity in considering that takeover, surely he must immediately step aside from any further involvement with that decision. Can you advise us whether you have been notified that either the Business Secretary or, indeed, the Prime Minister intend to come before the House today to confirm that that is what will now happen?
Madam Deputy Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order, which I think I can deal with quite succinctly. I have not received any notification that the Government are to make any comments, whether from the Business Secretary or anybody else this afternoon, on the matter that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, but I am sure that Government Front Benchers will have heard him. If we can return to the general debate, I call Gisela Stuart.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The current chaos on our roads is expensive for individuals, businesses and the country as a whole, and, although we cannot control the weather, we can control the way in which we respond to it. I have mentioned winter tyres in previous debates and been told that they are not appropriate for this country. I shall try to convince the House that they are.
Winter tyres are designed to be more effective than regular tyres in temperatures under 7° C on any type of road, and the Met Office advises us that for most of the winter even this country is below 7° C. They are manufactured with a larger percentage of natural rubber and silica in the compound, which does not harden as much as synthetic rubber in cold conditions. They have a tread pattern designed to cope with slush and cold rain, as well as with snow and ice, and they are safer than any standard tyre in cold, dry conditions below 7° C, because the tread compound heats up at lower rolling temperatures to create grip in low temperatures.
I am not arguing for studded ice tyres or snow chains. I make that point explicitly, because even the Transport Secretary seems to have misunderstood me. Both cause damage to road surfaces, and I understand that snow chains are illegal unless they are used on a road surface with compacted snow. Winter tyres work, however. I do not claim for one moment to be an expert on tyres or
even on cars, because I am proud of myself when I have worked out which side the petrol cap is on. However, when I look at the reviews of such tyres, I find real evidence that they are safer and much better.
One such tyre is the Goodyear UltraGrip 7 +, and it is interesting if we compare tyre performance on braking distances. I declare an interest, because that tyre is produced by Goodyear Dunlop Tyres, which is based in Birmingham. [ Laughter. ] It may not have escaped Members that I am a Birmingham MP.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Irrespective of whether Goodyear is based in the hon. Lady's constituency, I very much support what she says, because much of northern Europe, which experiences such snow, has those winter tyres. It is always said that the Government or the councils must provide for the roads, but, when we have inclement weather, and if we are going to have a lot more snow, winter tyres might be one solution.
Ms Stuart: I thank the hon. Gentleman. The factory is not in my constituency but in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who is sitting right next to me; Birmingham and Goodyear Dunlop are well represented in the Chamber this afternoon.
It is important to realise what a significant difference a winter tyre makes. When that particular Goodyear tyre was tested at a speed of 25 mph, it was found that its braking distance was six car lengths, or 25 metres, more than that of a summer tyre. That is not insignificant. Similarly, when comparisons were made in wet conditions conducive to aquaplaning, that tyre's performance was about a fifth better-grip was about 18% higher-than a normal tyre's.
People often say, "I've got ABS, so I don't need winter tyres," but that is completely to misunderstand the function of ABS, which allows someone to continue to be in control of steering when braking. It was never meant to deal with adverse road conditions.
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): A business man from near Hexham has all his employees on winter tyres. He put the issue very simply to me; he said, "You wouldn't go out wearing flip-flops in winter. You would put on suitable footwear. Why do we not do the same with a car?"
Ms Stuart: I am grateful for that intervention because it takes me back to when I first arrived in this country 35 years ago. One of the things that always struck me is that the Brits are extraordinarily happy to talk about the weather, but very reluctant to take any notice of it in their behaviour. I have seen Brits wearing flip-flops in the middle of winter, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that ought to stop.
That is an important question. The issue is not only how much the tyres would cost, but how much people could save on their summer tyres. Furthermore, insurance companies say that the probability
of an accident in adverse weather conditions goes up by 257%. There is the issue of avoiding accidents and the kind of snarl-ups on our motorways and roads caused by drivers-usually in continental rear-wheel-drive cars, the Mercs and BMWs, which were designed to have winter tyres-not being able to deal with not terribly steep inclines. The straightforward equation is that winter tyres probably do not cost as much as people think, and could save us a lot of money. The costs would depend on which tyre was chosen and whether one got a whole set of new tyres.
The industry says that in winter or when temperatures are below 7° C-that is, most of the winter-only 2% of people in this country drive cars with appropriate, winter tyres. In other words, 98% of people drive on unsafe tyres, so there is an argument for providing incentives for them to get the winter ones. At the moment, insurance companies are raising rather spurious points about whether winter tyres are modifications to the original tyres. I challenge the industry: just as there are rebates on house contents insurance if there are the right locks in a house, insurance companies should give rebates to those using winter tyres.
Furthermore, emergency services vehicles, whether ambulances or police cars, should as a matter of course have winter tyres because that would make them safer and save the country money; the practice should not be restricted only to some companies.
Ms Stuart: That is very true. Having grown up in Germany, I can vouch for the fact that the weather there is more regularly as fierce as it has been here. I would not advocate compulsion; the last thing that people want these days is to be forced to do anything more. It is a question of persuasion.
The Dutch managed to increase the use of winter tyres from 0.5% to more than 10% over 10 years through simple awareness campaigns. People here just do not think about the issue. I am glad to say that the Secretary of State for Transport seems to have changed his view between 2 December, when he thought that winter tyres were inappropriate, and now, when he says that those who can afford them should use them.
Matthew Hancock: The hon. Lady says that it is a matter of persuasion. After listening to her speech, I have also changed my mind. I am extremely persuaded and know what I shall ask for for Christmas.
The key thing is for people to behave in a manner that is appropriate to the weather conditions and to think ahead and order a set of tyres-whichever ones they choose-now, so that they have them in the winter. People should not make a fuss about it. Such an approach will save people money, save lives and save the economy. It is the right thing to do and we all ought to do it.
Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to raise a number of issues. Although I was delighted to see the back of the previous Labour Government and their totally discredited leadership, in recent years I have not been entirely content with the quality of ministerial responses to inquiries. We all understand that civil servants draft the letters, but if I get any more unsatisfactory replies, I will just scrawl across them the words "Not good enough" and send them back where they came from.
Joanna Cranfield was born with one arm. At the moment, I can use only one arm so I know that it presents challenges. My arm will get better; my constituent's arm will not. She is 17 and is a very talented swimmer, who I hope will represent us in the 2012 Paralympics. Since the age of two, she has had a blue badge disability living allowance and carer's money for her mother. Yet all that stopped at the age of 16. That is utterly ridiculous and I expect Ministers to address the matter.
My constituent Mr West took out his policy with Equitable Life before 1992. As is the case with other with-profit annuitants who took out policies before the September 1992 cut off date, he will lose a great deal of money. Unlike those who took out policies after 1 September 1992, Mr West will lose £100,000. I had certainly not appreciated that someone such as my constituent would be excluded from payments. How on earth can that be right? Again, I expect the Government to address the matter.
On Camp Ashraf, I am delighted to say that the early-day motion I have tabled has attracted 140 signatures. I am very concerned about the circumstances of the 3,500 people and 1,000 women in Camp Ashraf. Those residing in the camp have undergone psychological torture and serious medical restrictions. The UK Court of Appeal found that the People's Mujahedin of Iran was not involved in terrorism and yet it still appears on the US terror list. That is absolutely disgraceful and I very much hope that Ministers will support the PMOI and allow Maryam Rajavi to visit this country.
My constituent Stephen James Bristow is serving a 26-year prison sentence in Thailand for possession of 24 grams of amphetamine. His parents, who are 74 and 78, came to see me recently. He shares a cell with 50 people in absolutely unbelievable circumstances. His flatmate was apparently responsible for the drugs and has committed suicide. I am asking a Minister to intervene, so that we can at the very least get that gentleman back to this country to serve the rest of his time.
Another constituent, Jackie Currie, was the chairman of the National Association of Official Prison Visitors, which is a very successful organisation that helps to represent the interests of official prison visitors. Recently, that organisation has undergone a change in its leadership and has petitioned to become a charity. The Ministry of Justice grant agreement-the main source of funding-states that the grant was awarded for activities around official prison visitors, including helping the National Offender Management Service to maintain a central database of said visitors. The charitable status puts at risk that whole concept and basically means that the organisation will not function properly. Again, I hope that Ministers will intervene.
Another constituent, Cherry Sholem, finds that her son, who has learning difficulties and suffers from dyspraxia, is not doing well in mainstream school. The simple fact is that Southend council cannot afford to provide the sort of education that Mrs Sholem believes her son should receive. I think that I have now had somewhere in the region of 1,000 e-mails from Mrs Sholem, so I would be grateful, again, if a Government Minister could assist.
I have been dealing with the case of Mr Ian Shirley and his partner, Ms Ida Hammond, who sadly died as a result of ill-health caused by the late stages of dementia. They were partners for 29 years and lived together for almost 10 years. Following complaints by Ms Hammond's children, she was taken without explanation from Mr Shirley's care and placed in a care home. She sadly died later. Again, I am asking for a Minister to intervene on that issue.
The ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, retires in a month's time. On behalf of all the members of the all-party group on the Holy See, I wish to pay tribute to him for all his excellent work.
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on initiating the debate on winter tyres. I should like briefly to say something about the impacts and benefits. The impact on the economy of what has been happening over the past seven days has been enormous. Last weekend, the retail sector in Birmingham, which was suffering gridlock, lost a third of its anticipated business. Distribution and logistics companies in the midlands such as DPD and TNT, which serve retail and manufacturing industries and Royal Mail, have had immense problems in discharging their responsibilities at their busiest time of the year. Royal Mail itself has had to take on an additional 7,000 employees. I pay tribute to the remarkable postmen and postwomen out there in all weathers serving this country well.
The impact has also been felt in terms of accidents. Last weekend, the ambulance service in Birmingham had 3,000 calls in one day-Saturday-many of them about very serious accidents that occurred as a consequence of the appalling weather that hit the city.
Increasingly, the problem is that citizens are struggling to get where they want to in Britain-even to admirable counties like Suffolk and Norfolk. The benefit of winter tyres is therefore absolutely clear. Sadly, we no longer have the tyre industry in Britain that we once had. At its height, Fort Dunlop in my constituency had 15,000 employees. There is still the aircraft tyres factory that employs 400 people; it is a highly successful company. Britain no longer has mass production of car tyres. However, but we still have the Michelin factory in Stoke and the Goodyear factory in Wolverhampton. I know both factories very well and visited them personally when I was deputy general secretary of Unite. Both have the capacity and technology to manufacture winter tyres. If we were to promote winter tyres, as we must, given the chaos of the past seven days and the certainty
that we will have further bitter winters of the kind we are encountering at the moment, the benefits would be enormous for our economy generally and for the motor manufacturing cluster in the midlands, employing 150,000 people, in particular.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston is absolutely right to raise this issue, because winter tyres will save money even if insurance companies incentivise; she is right when she says that that would be the thing to do. The evidence from continental experience is that that would save them money in terms of reduced insurance claims. It would save lives and it could create jobs. Let us hope, therefore, as we wish this House a very merry Christmas, that this is the last winter in Britain that we see this lack of winter tyres. The future must lie in people being smart, buying British, buying winter tyres, saving themselves money, and being able to get to admirable places like Suffolk and Norfolk.
Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak after such erudite speeches from both sides of the House. I will speak on a matter that is specific to Suffolk and Newmarket, and that affects the racing industry across the country.
Charles II was the first to make Newmarket the headquarters of the horse racing industry, and it is now its global headquarters. I will speak briefly about Newmarket's position as the headquarters of that great sport. In Newmarket, there are 2,500 racehorses in training, 70 miles of gallops, 62 studs, the world leader in equine sales in Tattersalls, 79 training yards and 5,000 people who are directly or indirectly associated with the industry. Many of those people and organisations support me because I am an unambiguous supporter of the racing industry. The industry contributes to the economy across the country, making £3 billion and employing 100,000 people.
The future of the sport is tied intimately to gambling and the people who place bets on races-that includes many Members of this Chamber. We know that people love to bet. [ Interruption. ] Members are shaking their heads, but I think that it is an honourable and enjoyable thing to do, rather than something to query. Money from betting makes up 50% of prize money in racing, and that prize money attracts owners to race their horses and attracts some of the biggest international names to invest money in Britain. Heads of State, international business men and sportsmen, and punters who can afford to own a whole or part of a horse, love to race. Part of the thrill of racing is the potential for a prize.
The sport is not without its problems. The amount of money from the horserace betting levy that is transferred into prizes has fallen from £115 million to £75 million over recent years. Prize money in Britain is, on average, the 37th in the world. The levy, which was first put in place in 1961, is highly bureaucratic. Each year, it depends on the decision of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport on how much money should be transferred from the gambling industry to racing, to reflect the product that racing provides for people to bet on, and therefore for the gambling industry
to profit from. The transfer of value is a policy response to the value provided by racing, which everybody can bet on. That bureaucratic solution, which ends up with a decision by the Secretary of State, is extremely old-fashioned.
Peter Aldous: I speak as a racing enthusiast who often makes his way across Suffolk to visit the race course in my hon. Friend's constituency. Does he agree that there is something very wrong in the way in which racing has been financed for the past 50 years, in that other sports, such as football and cricket, sell their television rights to television companies, whereas racing has to pay Channel 4 to show it?
Matthew Hancock: I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that important point. Sorting out the pictures from racing and where the money from those pictures goes to is an important part of having a sustainable future for racing. There is an issue with the sale not only of the pictures, but of the product upon which so many bets are laid. We must consider the future of the transfer of value from the product.
In the short term, the Secretary of State has a consideration to make over the coming months. I urge the Government to find in racing's favour on the grounds that for a sustainable and successful racing industry, on which the gambling industry depends, there must be a reasonable transfer of value from gambling to racing. I also urge them to examine long-term solutions-for instance by removing the threshold under which betting shops pay no levy, by ensuring that offshore betting on UK races is levied upon, and by examining betting exchanges in which an ordinary punter lays the bet rather than an organisation. Such bets escape the levy, but the laying of a bet in any circumstances, whether by a corporate organisation or a punter, is still part of the turnover of betting.
In Ireland, a 1% levy on all wins has just been introduced, to recognise the transfer of value involved. That applies across all sports, so that racing is not separated out in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) alluded to. The French have a system of a 1% transfer of value, plus saleable rights to bet on the industry. I urge the Government to consider all such options.
Everybody involved in the debate, whether on the racing side, the gambling side or in between, would agree that there is a desperate need for the levy to be modernised. In an environment in which money is tight and a bureaucratic system has existed for many decades, there is great pressure to get it right. That pressure is increasing, because racing is increasingly a world sport rather than merely a domestic one. The amount of money that is bet offshore is recognition of that. It is critical that we seize this moment to secure for Britain global leadership, in the future as we have had in the past, in this golden sport on which my constituency thrives.
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): May I start by wishing everyone here in the House of Commons a very happy Christmas? The staff do an amazing job, and I am deeply grateful to them for their last seven months of work.
I must declare an interest as a former jockey who, for his sins, still rides as an amateur. I probably would not have got through my school days were I not also a former bookmaker. I financed a large part of my school days by running an illegal book when I was aged about 12 and 13, and I avoided the law very impressively. It is a wonder I ever survived.
I have also been lucky enough to have ridden upsides a wealth of great jockeys, and I know Tony McCoy, for example. I congratulate him on winning the BBC sports personality of the year award. He once got off a horse of mine at Fontwell Park, which is a weird and wonderful figure-of-eight track unique in this country, and he said, "Do you know, you should have ridden this horse. You would have probably done better, the two of you." People cannot comprehend what a compliment that was from the man who has won 15 champion jockey's titles and has been undefeated as champion jockey since 1995. He was clearly wrong in his estimation of my abilities as a jockey-he was always very charitable when off the horse, but uncompromising when on it.
Matthew Hancock: I, too, warmly congratulate Tony McCoy on his victory in the sports personality of the year award, and of course on his grand national win this year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that sports personality of the year victory shows just how highly the nation values racing, and therefore the urgency and importance of the Government's decision?
We are dealing with one of the most impressive, successful and world-renowned sports, and we must do everything we can to support it. I speak as someone whose father rode in the grand national, and who represents the wonderful constituency of Hexham. It has many assets, not least the amazing race course that sits high above the town. From there, one can see Hadrian's wall and three or four counties, and it is worth going there. I rode there in June 2009 and I confess that I am trying to persuade someone else to give me a ride again. But it is proving a little difficult as most people do not regard an ageing politician as their ideal jockey.
It is a sorry tale that the betting levy has been in such dispute for so long-in the House and in the racing forum. We are one of the few world leaders, on many levels and, if we fail to support racing, it will be the worst kind of short-sightedness. Both sides of the dispute accept that they have to run their organisation better and that the product must be improved. Many people are improving it-there is now much more diversity to the racing product. For example, 10 or 15 years ago, the idea that one would go racing and, at the end, watch Madness or Girls Aloud would not have been believed. Yet 20,000 people come to see them, and get everything going. That is a great credit to racing, but not enough is being done.
The overwhelming impression is that far too many have the bookmakers' interests at heart. Since I became a Member, I have been struck by the might of the bookmaking industry. The truth is that bookmaking could not survive in its current form without horse
racing. I therefore urge Ministers to do everything possible to support the work of trainers and the Jockey Club to sustain racing.
We are considering a small amount of money. One must not forget that in 2008, the levy was £115 million and in 2010, it was just over £75 million. That is the difference between total success and abject failure. None of the businesses, trainers, owners, jockeys-none of the infrastructure-would survive without adequate support from the levy.
It is a crucial decision. We are world leaders in so few things. One could argue that we were best at being unable to cope with snow until the great arrival of German winter tyres to bring us through. However, we are world leaders in one brand-horse racing. Clearly, investment needs to be made in the future of that great product. We need only look at the breeding that supports the infrastructure, and the hundreds of thousands of people who work day in, day out. I have been a stable lad and done my three horses.
Peter Aldous: I wholeheartedly endorse the policy that both my hon. Friends espouse. Do they agree that racing interests would be best served by speaking with one voice? There are currently too many sectional interests.
Guy Opperman: There is a diverse set of interests, largely because many individuals work on an individual basis, whereas bookmakers are multinational, FTSE 100, powerful companies. Betfair is one of the major companies launched in the past few years and Ladbrokes and William Hill are big companies. It would be better if we could speak with one voice. Racing is trying to do that.
I urge hon. Members to think of the sense of community and the wondrous people in Lambourn, Newmarket, Malton and Pulborough. They are special places, which we will lose if we do not get behind Ministers, and Ministers do not make an effort.
Horse racing is a wondrous and special sport. On 26 December, the whole world will be focused on Kauto Star's attempt to win his fifth King George. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to encourage us all to get behind the fight for racing, which cannot be allowed to wither and die. That will happen unless we change things.
I rise to make a plea to the Department for Transport to rescue my constituents from their plight. I am referring not to the temporary difficulties caused by unexpectedly seasonal weather, but to the long-suffering of my constituents on overcrowded First Great Western services in some parts of my constituency, and to their suffering from the woefully absent services in other parts.
However, before I speak about that, I should like to raise the urgent matter of the forthcoming closure for refurbishment of the Chippenham driving test centre. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has responsibility for road safety, has previously heard my calls for Wiltshire residents not to have to travel so far for a driving test. Many have experienced that difficulty since the closure of the Trowbridge driving
test centre under the previous Government. However, should plans to close temporarily the Chippenham centre proceed in February, learner drivers in Wiltshire will have to travel as far as Bristol, Swindon or Salisbury. The good news is that the former driving test centre premises in Trowbridge are still available, and I urge the Minister to request that the Driving Standards Agency considers moving the Chippenham centre operation to Trowbridge during the period of those works.
I am always happy to offer solutions to the Government when I seek action from them, including in respect of the overcrowded trains to which I referred. Just over a month ago, the Transport Secretary set out his proposals for future rail investment, including one to cascade 650 additional carriages to the network outside London by March 2014. I should like to make the case for assigning even just one of those carriages to the trans-Wilts line, which links the five largest population centres in Wiltshire.
The line was a popular and well used service until the start of the current First Great Western franchise in 2006, when the requirement to provide a meaningful trans-Wilts service was dropped by the previous Government. Overcrowding is currently a serious problem on trains in and out of Bath. The problem is made worse because passengers cannot travel directly between Trowbridge and Chippenham-they are forced to re-route through Bath.
The Cardiff to Portsmouth line particularly suffers from overcrowding, as I told the Secretary of State following his statement. I am in no doubt that that line warrants some of those additional carriages. However, I suspect that without the benefit of some local knowledge, his officials could overlook the contribution that a single extra carriage assigned to the trans-Wilts line will make in alleviating the problem, since it will provide the direct route that is currently missing at all but the extremes of the day.
For example, at Melksham, there are currently only two train services each way a day, scheduled at deeply unhelpful times for commuters. A worker from Melksham who wishes to use those services to travel to work in Swindon would be obliged to work a 12-hour day before counting their travel time. To say the least, that is impractical. A single extra 153-class carriage would make possible four extra return services per day between Swindon and Salisbury. In due course, with a second 153 car, a regular and reliable hourly service throughout the day would be possible. At the same time, that would relieve pressure on overcrowded trains through Bath.
In the debate following the Secretary of State's announcement on 25 November, he assured me that decisions to allocate those carriages will be determined not by the commercial position of franchisees, but by the wider economic benefits that extra capacity can bring. The trans-Wilts line can pass that test. For a start, there are no infrastructure constraints to expanding that service-no new track to lay, and no platforms or buildings to construct. There is passenger demand for such a service. Figures show a 10% growth in passenger numbers in west Wiltshire each year since 2005. The trans-Wilts service operated by Wessex Trains between 2001 and 2006 experienced strong year-on-year growth
in passenger numbers, and more than 500,000 people live in the crescent between Swindon and Salisbury, which the line serves.
Indeed, the Wessex chamber of commerce and other local businesses have added their strong support for a service at economically meaningful times to connect the county's population centres. The service would indeed support the footprint of the local enterprise partnership that is planned for Swindon, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Wiltshire council has plans temporarily to move offices to close to Melksham station next year, which would provide an additional boost to demand while the service establishes itself.
That is a strong economic case, and I must pay tribute to the TransWilts Community Rail Partnership, which continues to co-ordinate the campaign for better rail services in our area. Improving the trans-Wilts line is not a costly or high-risk proposition. It is simply a bid to regain a service that was popular and well used, and which should never have been removed from the franchise in the first place.
I do not make a habit of writing lengthy or over-optimistic Christmas lists. Some hon. Members will receive a shiny, high-speed train set for their constituents, but for me and the long-suffering commuters of Wiltshire one or two second-hand carriages would grant us our Christmas wish.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Christmas is a time that parents look forward to celebrating with their children when they can. However, for many parents that is not possible-and I am thinking not only of our troops in Afghanistan, but of the 3 million children in this country who live apart from a parent and, in particular, of those who are caught in the family justice system. I think particularly of non-resident parents who are trying to get access to or have contact time, as it is called, with their children. This issue also affects grandparents, aunts and uncles to a very great degree.
Sadly, it is abundantly clear that the present family justice system is much too slow. Its processes are greatly abused by parents with no penalty or sanctions applied. It is far too expensive in many cases. One of my constituents, a father, came to see me to say that he had spent more than £8,000 obtaining a court-sanctioned contact order to see his children. He did not abuse that order, but it was not honoured and he could not get it upheld by the courts or the police. Unsurprisingly, he was then short of money to pay maintenance as he wanted to do.
The most vivid example of the failure to honour a court order came from a warrant officer who came to see me. He took his civilian overcoat off and underneath he was in uniform. On his chest was his badge of office-a crown, as those who have served in the armed forces will know-and he put the court order on the table in front of me with the crown of the court on it, stipulating that he should have time with his children every other weekend. That court order was not honoured, and it was not upheld by the police or the courts. He felt deeply let down.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Does my hon. Friend see merit in a default position, whereby both parents have a duty to maintain contact with the children without having to go to court first?
Another of my constituents is a young father who has a valid contact order in place. He previously had full custody of his little girl. He is not in any way dangerous-indeed, he is a devoted dad. He last saw his daughter in July. She cries out when she sees him and her grandmother in the local shopping centre, longing to be with him. He has tried since July to get a court date to see her before Christmas, but that has not been possible. He left my surgery in tears after I had updated him on what the family court service had said about his case.
Another constituent also had a valid contact order and on 21 June, the Monday after fathers' day, he received a text to say that the mother of his child had disappeared, leaving no address. Even after a court seek-and-find procedure, no address was provided. A first court date was set in a court a long way away from where my constituent lives, but it was adjourned. When the case did get into court on 4 October, the proceedings were shambolic, the judge was not well briefed and the appropriate file was not there. The case was adjourned again until 30 November and, on 28 November, the mother succeeded in getting that hearing adjourned, as-allegedly-a medical report on the child was not ready. When my extremely persistent constituent finally got the case into court earlier this month, he found that the medical report was dated 18 November and had been available for the earlier court hearing, but of course there was no sanction on the mother. The courts allow difficult parents to deprive their children of a relationship with their father.
I am proud to be an MP for a Government who are radical and reforming in many ways, and I put it to the House that we need radical reform of the family justice system. We need a system that is much less winner takes all, less confrontational and less expensive; and we need a system that provides proper enforcement of court-sanctioned contact orders.
Matthew Hancock: Has my hon. Friend seen the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office reports into CAFCASS, showing that the extremely moving examples that he has highlighted today are not isolated cases but part of a wider problem in the family court system?
Andrew Selous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is right. The problem affects every single one of us in the Chamber and is an issue on which we need urgent progress. The input of mothers and fathers, where safe-that is the vast majority of cases-is hugely beneficial to children.
The language we use in these cases is extremely unhelpful. I really dislike the terms "non-resident parent", which suggests some sort of absentee parent forced to leave their own home, and "parent with care"-why should one parent have to do all the caring? Is that not unfair to mothers, to whom it often applies? The term "contact" is a cold and unfeeling term for what is the strongest of all human bonds. Would "daddy time" or "mummy time" not be more appropriate?
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), Australia takes a much better approach. Its approach, which was introduced hand-in-hand with reforms to the child maintenance system, is to regard a separated couple as two single parents, with the emphasis, wherever possible, on as much shared parenting as possible, not on one "parent with care" and a distant "non-resident parent". That matters greatly, because there are very positive results for children when separated parents are involved in their children's lives. Earlier this year, one of the most recent academic studies on this subject, by Fabricius et al, showed that when separated parents are involved to a greater degree with their children, it produces better school results, fewer suspensions and lower drop-out rates. There are clearly positive results to be had, so we need a real change of emphasis in this area. We need people in the public sector, such as general practitioners and teachers, to take the rights of non-resident parents seriously where the latter want to be involved in their children's lives.
I would commend Australia again. In Perth in western Australia, it was found that one of the reasons parents with care were giving for not allowing contact time with children was their concern that the fathers would not be able to look after the children properly. As a result, courses in child health were set up for fathers to facilitate greater shared care-a very practical suggestion. I put it to the Minister, therefore, that on this issue we have made too little progress for far too long, causing far too much heartache to too many of our constituents. As I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all Members and staff of the House a very happy Christmas, I ask everyone to reflect briefly on those good parents who long to be with their children this Christmas but who will be denied that opportunity.
Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House in saying that this has been a most interesting and informative debate. I, for one, have learned a lot about subjects that I hardly new existed as subjects, although I feel somewhat inadequate that my constituency does not have a race track or, indeed, a tyre factory-I hope that those things can be remedied as soon as possible.
I want to speak about unemployment levels, which is a subject that affects most hon. Members' constituencies, and what I believe charitable organisations can do to help to alleviate it. I have done a lot of work on unemployment in Watford. At 3.1%, we do not have a particularly high unemployment level in gross terms, but we do have a lot of young people-the figure has nearly doubled in the past two and a half years. We also have quite a few people on incapacity benefit, many of whom wish to be taken off it and to move into work. I feel that the system has very much failed them. During the summer I commissioned a research project with some students to look into unemployment, speaking to young people in particular. We were quite amazed at how many of the 560 young people on jobseeker's allowance were at home, demoralised and demotivated, making it difficult for them to go out and get work.
My central argument today is that we should encourage the charitable sector to help to alleviate the problem, because I believe that it can do far better than some of
the commercial providers that are currently involved in the different job schemes. Last week I met a remarkable lady who is the mother of one of my constituents who is registered disabled. Lindsey Gibson has some problems with speech, but she is determined to get herself a job. She told me a tale of how firms such as Kennedy Scott are paid a lot of money by Government, with the best of intentions, to get people off jobseeker's allowance or incapacity benefit. However, often people turn up and are told to leave after five minutes because there is no one there to teach them or because the computers are not working-they are given every excuse under the sun. It is quite disgraceful that such companies are not monitored, and my constituent is only one of a number of people who have mentioned this to me.
Let us look at the two new schemes that have been brought forward and how they use charitable organisations. Under the Work Together scheme, Jobcentre Plus encourages unemployed people to consider taking up voluntary work while looking for paid employment. Miss Gibson, whom I saw last week, was discouraged from doing that in the past, because people said that while she was doing voluntary work she was not able to look for work and would therefore not qualify for benefits. The Government are changing that, which is absolutely right. Doing voluntary work could mean working in a charity shop, which gives people confidence and allows them to network with other people. The hours are often flexible enough to allow people to go to job interviews and do what they really want to do. We have to encourage that. We cannot have rules that say that people cannot do more than 16 hours a week.
Work Choice, which is the other programme, is doing good work in Hertfordshire, and in Watford in particular, via the Shaw Trust, a charitable organisation that helps disabled people into work. Progress is being made. I would encourage the Government and charitable organisations to get involved in that work, because they can do it a lot better than private enterprise. If we had a race course or a tyre factory where people could work, things might be different, but we do not. We have to make do with Camelot-it is not involved in gambling, because people are playing a game-which employs 700 people. Camelot is a serious organisation; the reason I mention it is that it works in the community on helping people to get jobs. Some private companies are so fattened by the fees that they have received for training courses that I am reminded of that old advert-I think it was for Bran Flakes-in which people on a boat sang, "They're tasty, tasty, very, very tasty. They're very tasty." This has to stop, so the more that we can deal with charitable organisations, the better.
I wish everyone a happy Christmas and a happy new year. I hope that hon. Members sympathise, as I do, with the Deputy Leader of the House, because how he will deal with all these different subjects between now and Christmas and the new year I do not know.
Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con):
I realise that many colleagues' minds will not be on the business of the House, but on their Christmas lunch. If they are still in search of provisions, may I suggest that they
head to Norfolk, where they can find their entire lunch? If they should be stuck in Norfolk, because of the inclement weather-
Elizabeth Truss: Indeed. If hon. Members are stuck in Norfolk, may I suggest that they will be catered for? Not only will they be able to purchase their turkey, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and a mountain of vegetables; we also have the world's biggest sugar factory, so dessert is catered for. A by-product of the sugar factory is the heat that it generates, and tomatoes are produced in the greenhouses there. There is cheese-the Binham Blue and the Wells Alpine-for the cheeseboard, and, for those after-dinner drinks, we also have the only English whisky distillery.
Norfolk is indeed a county of bounty, with 80% of the land used for food and farming. It often strikes me that if Martians were to come to Earth and watch prime-time TV programmes such as "Come Dine with Me" and "River Cottage", they would think that we were all obsessed with food. They would imagine that we spent all day thinking about where our food came from and how it was produced. They would also believe Norfolk to be a dominant part of the British economy, with its strong food and farming industry. There have been excellent developments at local level. An example is the development of the Norfolk food hub, which I am assured will have goats grazing on the grass roof of its exciting new building, but there has not been a growth of food exports in relation to food imports. In fact, over the past 10 years, we have imported nearly twice as much food, relative to exports, as we used to do.
Elizabeth Truss: It is shocking, particularly given that farming and food production is now Britain's biggest manufacturing industry. The farming and food industry is often seen as a cost centre, rather than an income generator. In fact, at heart, it is a commercial enterprise. We can see that if we go to the Swaffham poultry auction, or the Swaffham market. I believe that agriculture and food need the same access as other industries to talented people and to capital, because that would help to generate more income from the food and farming industry.
One of the huge issues for food and farming is the high demand for skills and new input into the industry. Running an average farm now requires only an eighth of the number of people needed 40 years ago, owing to mechanisation and improved technology, but those people need to be highly skilled. They need to be technically trained, and they need to understand business. There are opportunities in agriculture for highly skilled engineers, technicians and graduates from other disciplines. For example, David Lawrence, who runs the very successful agricultural academy, Easton college, spent 18 months searching for an agricultural engineer. This is a problem for farmers and for the food industry across my constituency, and it is very important to get graduates and skilled engineers into the industry. It is a great industry, and we need to encourage talented, qualified people to come to Norfolk to work in it.
Unlike America, England does not have vast prairies that yield economies of scale. We do, however, have great access to European markets, high quality products and immense marketing capability, and we need to use them more. Let us look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's progress in expanding exports. I fully support its efforts to make greater use of our commercial capabilities and our embassies and high commissions abroad. Food and farming should be one of the leading industries that the FCO promotes. Heygate's flour mill in Downham Market has had great success in promoting flour products in the middle east, for example, and there is no reason why such successes cannot be replicated across other industries.
We can deliver for Britain. Agriculture has a great future as an export industry because of the sheer quality of our produce, but it also has an immense emotional connection to Britain. Internationally, people value British food. I was at an airport recently, and I saw Marmite on sale, ready for people to take out of the country. That is the kind of export leader that we need to think about.
I was shocked to read that we now import 67% of our apples. In the 1960s and 1970s, great orchards were uprooted so that we could have the Pink Lady apple in this country. Anyone who remembers our native breeds knows that an English apple tastes better, and I would particularly recommend Norfolk apples. It would be of huge benefit to the Treasury to see more native apples exported, as well as being eaten here, and it would be great to see the fens repopulated by the fabulous orchards that used to dominate the region. May I also say that good practice starts at home?
Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): Let me take this opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to wish you and all Members of the House, as well as its staff and their families, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
In April 2008, the last Government introduced the local housing allowance as a new way of calculating housing benefit for tenants in the private sector. The allowance is paid directly to the tenant, who should pass it on to the landlord as rent. The housing allowance and direct payments to tenants allow prospective tenants to "shop around" with their allowances, but following the introduction of local housing allowances more than 41% of private landlords-an increase of 4%-are not letting to tenants who receive such allowances, mainly because of the lack of a guarantee that rents will be received. The greatest difficulty facing many landlords with local housing allowance tenants is their inability to obtain rents. Currently, when tenants are in arrears, landlords must wait for a minimum of eight weeks before they can request direct payments.
I recently attended a meeting of the Calderdale landlords association in Calder Valley. The picture that was painted was of a sector in meltdown. No fewer than 350 properties belonging to the members of the association who were present at the meeting are in danger of being withdrawn from those receiving local housing allowances, entirely owing to the lack of guarantees.
In far too many cases throughout England, tenants move in, pay the first month's rent, and then do not pay for two months. Leaving arrears, they then move across the border to neighbouring local authority areas and
repeat the process. Then, of course, they move on again. Many pay only three months' rent in 12 months. The cost to landlords is getting out of hand, and the practice is keeping rental charges far too high. Honest, decent people who pay their rent on time are subsidising many people who do not. A landlord who contacted me recently said that in a portfolio of 15 houses, seven tenants were more than two months in arrears, and five of them had moved on owing well over £1,000 each in rent. The cost to landlords of pursuing back rents is also expensive, and landlords incurring that additional expense often have no chance of receiving any money at all. As a result, many landlords do not pursue back rents, as by doing so they would only add to their losses.
At a time when supply should be increasing to meet increasing demand and take advantage of higher rents, stock levels in the sector fell by 2.7% between the first and second quarters of the year. As a consequence, not only is supply much tighter, but rents have increased at a rate of 2.3% over the same period because supply is so much lower than demand.
Other issues in the sector are also causing a decline in stock levels. The taxation system provides little incentive for investment in accommodation; we should allow the private rented sector to be treated in the same way as businesses. The system is also failing to identify vulnerable people who, even under the current arrangement, should be eligible for direct payment of their local housing allowance to their landlords. Many tenants are failing to manage their finances properly, falling into rent arrears and having their tenancies terminated. The safeguarding processes that exist are failing. Many landlords are reporting that rents have not been paid this month, as some tenants are choosing to spend their housing allowance on Christmas rather than paying their rents.
The solution to the crisis that is starting to develop is quite simple. The Residential Landlords Association, Shelter and Crisis all agree on two specific points. First, their tenants-who consist overwhelmingly of claimants of local housing allowance-say that they would prefer the allowance to be paid directly to their landlords. That would help people to manage their finances, and would reduce the temptation to use the allowance to pay other debts rather than paying rent. It would also provide tenants with security so they could be sure that the rent had been paid and there was no chance of losing their home.
Jack Dromey: The hon. Gentleman's heart-rending appeal on behalf of landlords is very interesting. Will he join me in extending similar concern to the 67,000 families in the midlands facing an increase of an average of £9 a week as the consequence of £1.8 billion being taken out of housing benefit by his Government-families who can ill afford to pay £9 a week extra?
Craig Whittaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure he will agree that it was the previous Government who brought in the housing allowance, which is hindering the progress of the private rented sector and stopping investment in it, as I mentioned.
The rule by which the local housing allowance can be paid directly to landlords only when claimants become eight weeks in arrears should be replaced when a sum of one month's rent falls into arrears for 14 days. That
would prevent tenants in difficulties from getting further into debt. Allowances should also be paid calendar-monthly in advance, in line with normal rental payment practices.
For a system that was set up to give people their own choices, its failure is producing a system where rents are on the rise because of the shortage of housing in the sector and because of those who do not pay their rent and buck the system. That is without question increasing rents in the sector. That is not fair, it is not sustainable and it needs to change.
Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on bringing some festive cheer to this Adjournment debate with your red socks with green flashes. I am not sure whether those are holly leaves. [Interruption.] I can see things which other Members in the Chamber may not be able to see.
Unfortunately, the topic that I wish to raise today is a little more serious. In his statement of 14 December, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), announced plans for a more modern justice system that has
"more efficient courts, better facilities, and the faster conclusion of cases for the benefit of victims, witnesses, defendants, judges and the public at large."-[ Official Report, 14 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 816.]
I support the broad intention of those proposals, and I believe the Surrey courts service has supported this approach for some time. Since 1990, the year in which Woking court opened as the county's new, purpose-built building, seven courthouses have been closed in total and just four magistrates courts now operate-in Guildford, Redhill, Staines and Woking.
Woking is still the best equipped court in Surrey with excellent disabled facilities, including wheelchair access and hearing loops in each court, and terrific youth and child witness provision. Woking is also the most efficient court in terms of the number of cases seen per hour relative to utilisation rates. The case throughput rate has risen from 5.43 per hour in 2008 to no less than 7.65 in 2010.
"By closing courts with low workloads, or facilities which do not meet the modern standards society expects, we have been able to release £22 million to improve and modernise the courts to which work will transfer."
Presumably he is including potential Woking court receipts within this figure, despite it having neither a low workload nor poor facilities. However, he is closing Surrey's most modern and best equipped court and he will find it almost impossible to raise the remaining three courts in Surrey to an equivalent standard. For example, the other courts have severe limitations with regard to which courtrooms prisoners can be produced in, whereas Woking can have prisoners produced in all three courtrooms.
The Government's consultation response pointed out that the public areas of Staines and Guildford courts are accessible to disabled people. That is a wonderful
thing for disabled visitors, but not so much use to a disabled person who wishes to access the actual courtrooms independently and safely.
While we are on the subject of the Government's response, I am told that six financial advisers have been left off Her Majesty's Courts Service list of staff affected by the closure. I hope the Minister will be able to correct this. There are also significant maintenance backlogs at Guildford and Staines, and I would be grateful if the Minister could provide more details on them, as I believe the figures have recently changed.
If Woking court is so wonderful, why is it being closed? The reason seems to be that the Ministry of Justice has been unable to identify one of the older, less efficient courts-which would have been more in keeping with the terms of the consultation and the overall strategy-because the other magistrates courts in Surrey are co-located with county courts. Yet after seven closures in 20 years, I do not believe the county can afford to lose another court.
In 2008, Surrey had a population of just over 1.1 million people, which amounts to just over 278,000 people per court. Only one area had a higher figure-south Yorkshire-which has more than 316,000 people per courthouse, and it is not suffering a closure. If Woking court closes, Surrey's figure will be comfortably the highest in the country, at over 371,000 per courthouse.
Elizabeth Truss: My constituency has also faced a court closure, at Thetford. Does my hon. Friend agree it is important not just that justice is done, but that justice is seen to be done locally? We need to make sure that our justice system does not become over-centralised, and that people locally need to be involved.
Not only would Surrey have 371,000 people per courthouse, but Surrey's population is increasing, by almost 20% over the next 23 years according to Surrey county council. I will also send figures to the Minister showing that Surrey already has one of the highest numbers of crimes per courthouse of any police authority outside London.
Neil Parish: My constituency also faces the problem of a courthouse closing, in Honiton. Does my hon. Friend agree that a lot of defendants might not get to court if they have to travel a great distance? If they do not get to court, the police will have to arrest them later, so there could be much more bureaucracy and problems as a result of shutting a local courthouse.
Jonathan Lord: My hon. Friend makes a valuable and pertinent point. Woking also has a significant Muslim population, and it has built up good links with Woking courthouse, so the problem my hon. Friend mentions could be exacerbated in this instance.
If Woking court closes, the target utilisation rate for Staines and Guildford, where the work is due to transfer, will be 93%. That is very high, especially considering the need for significant remedial work and modernising at those courthouses. Where will the cases go if the
courts have to close to be repaired or updated? Where is the margin for error for the population growth I mentioned, or for the unexpected?
"will be maintained should the closure be ordered"?
The relationship between the mosque and the local court has been built slowly and sensitively over many years, involving specific officials from the court, who will no longer serve the current local justice area, and chairmen of a bench, which will cease to exist. The mosque will lose its link to the court because that link will be fractured, and its relationship with new and unfamiliar personnel, in an area outside its community, can neither be anticipated nor relied upon.
I urge the Minister to review all these points-I will elaborate on them when I write to him shortly-and to reflect on his decision. Several Members have intervened on me, and I sympathise with many colleagues who have also suffered closures, but I say to them that we have a court that is purpose built, has high utilisation rates, has a terrific bench, dedicated staff, fantastic disabled access and all the facilities I have mentioned, and it would be a tragedy for the county of Surrey to lose this court.
Describing a women's refuge as a "success" is a regrettable use of the word, because in a supposedly civilised society there should be no need for a place of refuge for women and, frequently, also their children, to escape the violence, intimidation or non-physical psychological behaviour of a bullying husband, partner or father. But what has been achieved in my constituency at the Colchester and Tendring women's refuge, and I am sure at many similar refuges around the country, can be described only as a success. I am sure that lives have been saved; certainly, battered lives have been spared further abuse and cruelty.
In the past year, the refuge has provided a safe haven for 120 women and 194 children. Across Essex, refuges have accommodated 664 women and 701 children-that is an increase of 15% over the previous year. The refuge in my constituency relies on a combination of professionals and volunteers. It represents exactly the concept that I believe the Prime Minister had in mind when he talked about "the big society". The Colchester refuge could not operate without volunteers. In addition to the trustees, who are responsible for the organisation's governance and financial health, there are a further 23 volunteers.
Sadly, although the operating costs of the refuge are less than half what it would cost the public purse if the children were put in care-and, thus, removed from their mother, whose whereabouts could also result in a cost to public funds-there is a real threat to its future provision and financial viability because of serious cuts to funding from the Supporting People budget. In Essex, the cut is feared to be in the region of 25 to 30%. We
must examine the financial savings-these are in addition to the huge emotional good work, for which no monetary value can be given, of keeping mothers and their children united-from what refuges provide. There would otherwise be a legal statutory requirement on the relevant local authority to fund this money from the public purse.
There is arguably no worse time-or perhaps, given the awfulness of the subject, no better time-than the last parliamentary day before Christmas for me to raise one of the taboo subjects which diminishes the claim that we are a civilised country: domestic violence and other abuse suffered by many women. This Saturday, about 30 children, 20 of whom are under child protection orders, will have their Christmas dinner in the Colchester refuge. If places had not been available, they would probably have had to be separated from their mothers and taken into foster care.
The directorate of children's social care at Essex county council estimates that the cost of fostering a child for a week is £500-that excludes administration, monitoring and other associated costs. The highly respected Fostering Network puts the cost considerably higher. By contrast, the cost to Supporting People of keeping a woman with three children in Colchester and Tendring women's refuge is £216 a week. Adding to that the housing benefit received, the cost of keeping a family together in a refuge remains less than half the basic cost of £1,000 to keep just two children in foster care.
I am certain that the pioneers who, in December 33 years ago, opened the first women's refuge in Colchester would not have wanted things to be so desperate that such a facility was needed. Regrettably, such is the scale of the problem that in the second decade of the third millennium this accommodation in Colchester has grown from one property, a former neighbourhood shop, to two large houses. One is a big Victorian dwelling converted to provide individual spaces for women and their children, as necessary; the second is a purpose-built modern building that should be viewed as the benchmark for such provision. I recall attending the official opening of the older dwelling.
There is also a third building, which is a daytime centre providing non-residential advice and support for women living in disturbing relationships. Although the buildings are located in my constituency, the Colchester and Tendring women's refuge covers two local authority areas-those of Colchester borough council and Tendring district council. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) covers parts of both those local authorities.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for raising this matter on the Adjournment of the House. Does he agree that the concern is that Essex county council's decision to withdraw funds will result in increased costs for the council? I assure him that the Public Administration Committee, which I chair, is examining this problem in general and is considering how the voluntary sector is affected by reductions in public spending of this nature.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who has visited the refuge and is working with colleagues at Essex country council to try to resolve the financial problems to which I refer. We might disagree on some things, but I am confident that we have shared
objectives on this occasion. I also understand that the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell), whose constituency is exclusively in Tendring district, will visit the refuge in the new year.
With a background as a journalist who reported on court cases, and with long service in local government where I came across much of life, I thought that I was streetwise, but in my time as a Member I have been shocked by how some male members of the species can be such "bar stewards". I am sure that it has been the constituency experience of colleagues throughout the House.
It was because of my growing concerns about domestic violence that I was able, when I served on the Home Affairs Committee, to encourage colleagues to hold an inquiry into the subject. We heard harrowing stories as we gathered evidence. In the course of the inquiry, I accompanied the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), on a visit to the Colchester women's refuge to meet members of staff and some of the residents. The Committee's report on domestic violence, forced marriage and "honour"-based violence was published on 13 June 2008.
Domestic violence is a subject that people do not normally want to talk about, but here in Parliament it is important that we do. An analysis of 10 separate domestic violence studies came up with consistent findings: one in four women experiences domestic violence at some point of their lives, with between 6 and 10% suffering in any given year. The British crime survey, looking at England and Wales for 2003, found an estimated 12.9 million incidents of domestic violence against women and 2.5 million against men. Although only a minority of incidents of domestic violence are reported to the police, on average the police still receive one call about domestic violence every minute-1,300 calls a day, more than 570,000 each year.
In that context, the need for women's refuges is such that it would be wrong for there to be cuts that imperilled their future. We have to accept, as a sad reflection on society, that a small minority of men behave in an appalling way. The Colchester and Tendring women's refuge provides a safe haven. A combination of professional staff and volunteers do a fantastic job, but I am concerned that the unintended consequences of Government policies-implemented by Essex county council, cutting the Supporting People funding for refuges-could seriously affect what is done. I urge the Government to ensure that women's refuges are allowed to continue the excellent work that they undertake.
Moving from one serious subject to another, I note that this Christmas approximately 3,000 of my constituents will not enjoy the festivities with their family. I refer to the soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade, based at the Colchester garrison, who are deployed to Afghanistan and predominantly Helmand province. Most are at Camp Bastion, but others have been deployed throughout the province, including those soldiers at the forward operational bases, the FOBs. To them and their families back in the UK, I am sure the whole House will wish to send Christmas greetings and its hopes for a peaceful return in the new year.
Finally, to my constituents, royalists and republicans alike, let us look forward not only to Christmas but to the royal wedding. If the republicans do not want to celebrate, I hope that they will still enjoy the day off.
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