18 Sep 2012 : Column 847

Whenever these cases are taken to an appeals tribunal and the people there look at the circumstances, I sometimes wonder whether they do not see what I see. I cannot understand why they do not see a person’s inability to pass a test?

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that one of the big problems is the time involved in getting to an appeal. I had a case some weeks ago in which an individual went without money for his family for about nine weeks. Surely, that cannot be right?

Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and wholeheartedly agree with what he says. I could give a number of examples of constituents who have to travel a great distance to get to an appeal. The stress and trauma that they go through to get to the appeal before it is even heard is incredible.

We are all very aware of the financial situation that we find ourselves in—everyone has referred to it—the savings that need to be made and the fact that no one should receive a benefit unless they are entitled to it. I do not think that anyone here disagrees with that, but common sense would say that a person who has fought cancer and is in the early stages of recovery is entitled to a little help because they physically cannot work. It is little wonder that Macmillan Cancer Support has said that 40% of cancer survivors in Northern Ireland say that not all their health and social care needs are met and that cancer sufferers have ill health for years after. Although the circumstances in Northern Ireland are not unique, I suggest that perhaps in other parts of the United Kingdom they are probably equal to that. That needs to be taken into account when the standard ESA tests are carried out. Cancer has no one standard to fall into. To disallow people the help that they need when they are entitled to it is not acceptable and, I believe, must be addressed.

Macmillan Cancer Support recently sent me a brief—I am sure that many Members also received it—that makes for uncomfortable reading for those in government who have made the decisions on the changes and how they affect those people. Macmillan strongly believes that the Lords amendments on employment and support allowance are votes for compassion, common sense and compromise—the three Cs—and are very important. Few of us are untouched by cancer—indeed, I suspect that every family has been touched by cancer at some time—and many face financial uncertainty as well. It is clear that they should receive ESA and not be forced into work when they are still recovering.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): One of the issues that have recently come to my attention is that 80% of my constituents who have gone to appeal have been successful, which is a startling result. I would have expected the figure to be up to around 50%, or about a third. That shows that the initial assessments, as we discussed in Committee when this was coming through Parliament, have got it wrong. The current system for giving out these assessments is wrong.

Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, which will apply elsewhere, although perhaps not as much as in my area, where a number of ESA and DLA

18 Sep 2012 : Column 848

appeals are regularly fought and won after the wrong decision was made the first time around. That shows that changes are needed.

I am also concerned that blind and partially sighted people are being excluded from ESA payments, despite the Government’s acceptance of the recommendations of an independent review last year to improve the work capability assessment process. Many constituents have sent me copies of the Royal National Institute of Blind People briefing paper. They are concerned, and it would be remiss of me not to raise the issues in the House or to appeal to the Government to consider them.

ESA gives vital support to blind, partially sighted and other disabled people who are unable to work, and provides them with immediate employment support to move towards work, where they are able to do so. Since April 2011, it has no longer been possible for blind or partially sighted people to qualify for ESA and the vital support that it gives, because changes to the assessment criteria fail to recognise the barriers that they face in relation to work. That has dramatic consequences for the individuals concerned, by unfairly forcing blind and partially sighted people on to jobseeker’s allowance, with an associated loss in income and vital support to prepare for work. They lose benefits when they come off such programmes. The severe disability premium would give them a better quality of life, by giving them more money to bring in people to care for them.

In November 2011, the independent review, led by Professor Harrington, of the work capability assessment recommended that consideration be given to the need to review the sensory loss descriptors, which are the criteria used to assess entitlement for ESA. The Government accepted that recommendation, but as yet no concrete action has been taken to change the assessment, so blind and partially sighted people continue to lose out. It is frustrating that, despite the recommendations and despite the fact that the Government asked for them, we have not moved on and achieved the vital changes that are needed.

The current impracticalities can be addressed only through revised descriptors in the communication and navigation activities of the WCA. To be specific, new descriptors should reflect the real challenges of obtaining a job, including ones concerned with awareness and with locating and finding.

I will focus on some of the key activities and illustrate the problems faced by those who apply for ESA and those who are blind and partially sighted. Activity 4 is an area of concern. It focuses on picking up and moving or transferring of an object by the use of the upper body and arms and manual dexterity. For someone who is blind or partially sighted, descriptors in this activity fail to account for whether the person can see, locate and know where safely to put the object. The criteria assessment and the questions asked of blind and partially sighted people do not even realise how that affects them—they should, but they do not.

Activity 7 centres on understanding communication, and there are practical problems relating to a claimant’s ability to read Braille. The addition of the ability to read Braille to understand a basic message was not in the previous guidance. If the objective is to consider adaptation—and it should be—a notice detailing the

18 Sep 2012 : Column 849

location of a fire exit in Braille is simply not realistic, unless the workplace is specifically and totally geared towards Braille readers.

Further impracticality arises from the expectation put on the interaction between a stranger and a blind person. It is inconceivable that a stranger would walk up to a blind person and hand them a sheet of Braille, especially in the context of a fire. That should not be used as a proxy to satisfy the descriptor and assessment on understanding communication by non-verbal means. It is another simple illustration of how the ESA process does not work for those who are blind and partially sighted.

Activity 8 is on navigating and its “getting about” descriptor scores only nine points for someone who needs to be accompanied around familiar and unfamiliar places. If the intention is to measure impairment functionality, the need to be accompanied is not a sign of adaptation, so the person should be able to score 15 points. Again, that descriptor should be changed, so that those who have limited capability because they are blind or partially sighted qualify for the 15 points and, therefore, for ESA.

The last activity is the awareness of everyday hazards. The descriptors in that activity are too narrow and apply only to people with cognitive impairments. They do not adequately consider the impact of sight loss.

Extremely ill people, people with health problems and people with sight problems who really need help and are looking to the system to provide it cannot get it. The descriptors prevent them from qualifying, when the opposite should be the case. My office is inundated with appeals against DLA decisions because of the guidelines that are in place. Over and again, the same problems are occurring, which is frustrating.

I watch people struggle into my advice centre who can hardly walk, who are suffering from cancer or who do not have the quality of life that the rest of us take for granted. I help them to fill out their forms correctly, which can take an hour and a half or two hours, in the hope that they will get the funds that they need to get the help that they cannot do without. They cannot afford to pay for carers because they do not have the funds that they need. The forms are complex and difficult.

I will give another example of how the system lets people down. I once fought a DLA appeal for a man who had only one leg. His other leg had been amputated. He suffered from diabetes to such an extent that he had to wake up during the night to inject himself. He also suffered from Crohn’s disease and—this is a very personal issue—he often soiled himself during the night before he could get to his crutches and make his way to the toilet. Despite all that, he was turned down for DLA.

I ask myself over and again, “Who are the people who are making these decisions? Do they really grasp what is going on? Do they know what problems the person who has applied for DLA or ESA has?” I would like to take them into that man’s house for one night and leave them to care for him. The next day, they would understand his problems. That would be a good example for most of these people.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 850

I urge the Government to do the right thing by the most vulnerable in our society. I know that this is an Adjournment debate and that the Deputy Leader of the House will reply, but perhaps this will filter through to the people who make the decisions. Of course, we have to consider the money ledger and should not ignore the financial circumstances that the country is in, but we have to consider people’s lives and their mental health.

I see the frustration and anxiety of those who have depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. One woman who comes into my office screams in frustration and says that she will end her life because she is so stressed out by the forms after forms that come to her house. She says that she has no reason to live and that the pressure of filling in the forms becomes overwhelming. She then does not eat, which is another problem. That leaves the girls in my office distressed at the system. It does not take into account the state of this lady’s mental health, when it should do so, and does not understand what the issues are. That disconcerts me.

That woman could not find employment in any workplace. I am not an expert, but when I see people, I can near enough judge whether they are able to work. This lady would not be able to work. She has been trailed through appeal after appeal and wins each time. One wonders whether anybody looks at the background. The girls in my office are concerned that one day they will ring up to check on her and she will not answer.

The Government are right to stop those who are not entitled to benefits from claiming them. However, some people are entitled to help, and they seem to be the ones who are suffering the most. The ball is clearly in the Government’s court. What will history record about what has been done with the vulnerable and the needy? I hope that it will be positive.

4.24 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to speak about Sunday trading. The point that I want to make is simple.

As Members may recall, on 30 April this year, the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Act 2012 was passed. Its effect was to extend Sunday trading hours temporarily during the limited period of 22 July to 9 September.

During the debate on the Bill, I expressed my concerns about those proposals, and in particular about whether they would be used as a precedent for a further—or permanent—extension of Sunday trading hours. I will not repeat those concerns in detail as they are on the record, but they included: the potentially negative impact on family and community life; the need for us all—as individuals and as a nation—to have a recognised rest period each week for our health and well-being; and the potential consequential pressure to work on Sundays, especially for some of the lowest-paid workers in our society, and the subsequent strain on their families. I also referred to concerns raised by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and to the fact that for many people of faith, Sunday still has a special significance.

Ian Paisley: The hon. Lady is raising an issue that is crucial to our nation’s trade. Was she as concerned as I was on hearing the word “temporary”, which sometimes

18 Sep 2012 : Column 851

does not mean what it says on the tin? Temporary provisions in Northern Ireland lasted 30 years, but I hope that through the hon. Lady’s speech, we can obtain absolute clarity that temporary means temporary, and that the extension to the trading laws will cease on the date that was given to Parliament when this matter was first raised.

Fiona Bruce: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because obtaining such clarity is exactly the purpose of my contribution to the debate.

My concerns—and other concerns—were shared by several colleagues during the debate on 30 April. Responding to the debate, the then Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), stated:

“The concern has been expressed that this Bill is somehow a Trojan horse, preparing the way for a permanent relaxation of the rules for large stores. Let me assure hon. Members again that that is not the case.”

Referring to my particular concerns about the impact on families and family time, he stated:

“I think she is absolutely right, so let me say to her that the Bill affects just eight Sundays and the deliberate inclusion of a sunset clause means that the Bill will be removed from the statute book after 9 September. Indeed, as the Secretary of State has made clear, if a future Government were to consider a permanent relaxation, they would have to undertake a full consultation and present new legislation to this House. As the Secretary of State also pointed out, we have no such plans.”—[Official Report, 30 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 1352-53.]

I was pleased to hear the Minister’s words and I took them as a personal assurance, although I still abstained rather than vote for the proposals. I understood, however, that many of my colleagues also took those words as a firm assurance on behalf of the Government that the temporary alterations to Sunday trading hours would not be further extended or used as a precedent, and hon. Members voted accordingly on that basis.

Some weeks later, towards the end of the wonderful Olympic and Paralympic period of which our nation is so rightly proud, suggestions circulated in the press— I know not from what source they originated—that a permanent deregulation of Sunday trading hours should perhaps be considered, following the limited extension period.

Such suggestions were completely at odds with the statements expressed by more than one Minister during the passage of the Bill. Another Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), stated at the time:

“I want to make it clear that this is a temporary measure and not a test case for a permanent relaxation of the rules in the future”,

and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills stated that the Bill was

“not a signal of the Government’s intent on the broader issue of Sunday trading;”. —[Official Report, 30 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 1293.]

In the light of recent press speculation about a possible further extension to Sunday trading hours, I seek today, either from the Deputy Leader of the House, or after the debate from the new the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), clear

18 Sep 2012 : Column 852

confirmation that the assurance given on behalf of the Government still stands, and that despite references to an extension of Sunday trading hours, the Government have no such plans. The Government’s assurance was carefully noted not only by me and many colleagues in the House, but—crucially—by many millions of people across the country.

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House and the responsible Minister will take this point in the spirit of the utmost courtesy with which I express it, but there is an issue of integrity here. In issuing the confirmation that I seek, Ministers would put an end to continuing speculation that is a cause of concern to many. Of course, the extension of Sunday trading hours was in neither coalition party’s manifesto nor in the coalition agreement.

I turn to some comments that have been made since the summer extension of hours. The British Retail Consortium has recently announced that it does not want to lobby for permanent deregulation of Sunday trading hours. According to Retail Week magazine, momentum for a permanent change among retailers has begun to wane, which may be a result of the BRC’s announcement that retail sales fell by 0.4% in August, compared with August 2011 on a like-for-like basis, with no sign of the Olympic boost that was promoted as a reason for the temporary extension. According to the Association of Convenience Stores, independent retailers reported a loss of sales of up to 20% and a 30% drop in footfall over the Olympic period. That reported negative impact is of considerable concern to many small retailers, which often live on narrow margins, and to their employees.

Jim Shannon: Does that not knock the giant supermarkets’ feet away from under them? They said that if they opened longer on Sunday, there would be extra trade and extra jobs, but those figures prove that it did not happen.

Fiona Bruce: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and I understand from answers to written questions that I have tabled on the issue that the Government are proposing to produce their own analysis of sales over the Olympic period. May I venture to suggest that any analysis would be of questionable conclusive value due to a number of variables that influenced retail sales during the Olympics, not least the fact that they were a wholly unique event? There was also the differing proximity of retail outlets to Olympic venues, the weather and the coincidental holiday period.

I remind the House that the Government have already given extensive consideration to a review of Sunday trading hours in their retail growth review and their red tape challenge. In both instances the policy was rigorously explored, and I understand that a clear view was formed that there was no need to amend the current trading hours, which represented

“a valued compromise for all parties.”

I should add that many people would welcome more protection for Sundays as a day of rest and a day for families, friends and those of shared faith. I commend the work of the Keep Sunday Special campaign, which continues to make a strong case for keeping Sunday a different and special day in our national life.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 853

If shops were open longer, that would not mean that consumers had the funds or the inclination to buy more goods. Our quieter high streets during the Olympic period showed that, including some of the Cheshire high streets about which I have inquired.

Far from being pro-growth, any proposal further to extend our already long retail trading hours may actually have the opposite impact, as work or productivity expands to fill the time allotted, as the old saying goes. I am reminded of accounts that I have heard from during the war, when factories seeking to increase their production moved to a seven-day working week and found that production actually decreased. A subsequent return to six-day production led to an increase. The day of rest proved its value.

I wish to give two quotations from senior business leaders. They were not necessarily made subsequent to the Olympic period, but they are worth putting on the record. Justin King, Sainsbury’s chief executive, has said:

“We’re content that Sunday is special and we don’t see customer demand for a change in the current law.”

The former Marks and Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose has said:

“The fact of the matter is you simply spread the same amount of business over a longer period, but with more operating costs. It’s a zero-sum game.”

Time with family—time to care—is important. So many people at the end of their lives say, “I wish I’d spent more time with my family; I wish I’d spent more time caring.” We have all heard the expression that not many people, if anyone, would say, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”, and I doubt that anyone will say, “I wish I’d spent more time shopping.”

I have been encouraged to hear it reported recently that the Prime Minister, on being asked whether he would support changes to the law in this regard, responded:

“We said at the time it was a specific thing for the Olympics and that was the proposal that we made.”

I request from the Deputy Leader of the House, on behalf of BIS Ministers, clear and unequivocal confirmation of the assurance given in this House when the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill was debated and passed that the extension of trading hours for the period of the games was limited to that period and would not be extended. In doing so, he will put an end to the ongoing speculation and concern in this connection. I look forward to his response.

4.36 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I join her in hoping that we can rely on the assurances given during the passage of the Bill on Sunday trading.

Following the theme of relying on assurances and promises given, I want to talk about my constituent Gary McKinnon. I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House, who will respond to the debate. He is in a good position to do so, having been on the picket line, in effect, to protest about the treatment of Gary McKinnon. Earlier this year, he tweeted:

“DC must intervene on medical grounds to stop extradition proceedings.”

18 Sep 2012 : Column 854

I could not put it better myself, and I hope that his response will echo that statement. In making it, he is in good company. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, the Attorney-General and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice have all stood shoulder to shoulder with others in the House, and others who have not been able to come here today, who stand alongside Gary McKinnon and the many campaigners on his behalf.

This could be, and I hope that it is, the last debate that we need to have on Gary McKinnon before a decision is finally made. The Prime Minister has said:

“Gary McKinnon is a vulnerable young man and I see no compassion in sending him thousands of miles away from his home and loved ones to face trial.”

In 2009, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“It is certainly wrong to send a vulnerable young man to his fate in the United States when he could and should be tried here instead. It is simply a matter of doing the right thing.”

He went on to say:

“Government Ministers have let this sorry saga drag on for seven years, heaping misery on Mr McKinnon, his family and his supporters.”

We are now 10 years into the sorry saga, with misery still heaped on Mr McKinnon, his family and his supporters. The Deputy Prime Minister also said in 2009:

“It would be fair and it would be right to try Mr McKinnon in Britain. But the clock is ticking. The Prime Minister just needs to pick up the phone to make this prosecution happen, I urge him to do so, before it is too late.”

The Attorney-General asked the Conservative party conference:

“Can someone tell me how counter-terrorism will be served by extraditing Gary McKinnon to the United States for hacking into Government computers in search of UFOs?”

The new Justice Secretary has said:

“I hope the House of Commons will send a message to the Government that really this is not what the extradition system is supposed to do. These new rules were set up for very serious offences, for terror offences. I don’t believe Parliament ever intended them to be used to extradite somebody with autism issues to face a charge like this.”

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s dedication over a long period in sticking up for his constituent, and I join him in what he is saying. Does he agree that it beggars belief that this has taken so long and we still do not have a decision? Does he agree that millions of people—the vast majority throughout the United Kingdom—want this case to end in justice for Gary McKinnon and his family and to put an end, once and for all, to the ridiculous idea that he should be sent to the United States?

Mr Burrowes: I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has been very much an hon. Friend in the campaign over many years. Indeed, 10 years is an extraordinary time for someone to have his life hanging by a thread. Countless people are alongside my constituent and this must end—it must happen.

I wanted to bring the debate to the House because after today we are not sitting for a while and this is the time when we must reflect on why a decision has not been made, promises have not yet been kept and justice has not yet been delivered for Gary McKinnon. I have initiated a number of debates and been involved in

18 Sep 2012 : Column 855

others on extradition arrangements but specifically on Gary McKinnon, my constituent. Sometimes we forget and need to be briefly reminded of the chronology.

In March 2002, Gary McKinnon was arrested in his north London flat for allegedly hacking into NASA and Pentagon computers from his bedroom, where he was searching for UFOs and free energy. For 10 years, this young man with Asperger’s has been living every day, every hour and every minute in a very dark tunnel around his autism, and no light has come in, and living under the constant threat of extradition. However, in May 2010 the then Home Secretary stepped in to halt the extradition process, saying that we needed to review and consider medical evidence. I commend her very much for taking that step. In October 2010, the Prime Minister announced that the decision would be given in a matter of weeks, not months, but we are still here, waiting.

In November 2010, the Home Office requested further medical reports. As time has gone by, medical reports and assessments by the very top experts in the field of autism and Asperger’s have taken place. The case for keeping Gary McKinnon here has not got weaker; it has got stronger.

New evidence has been submitted to the Home Office from Professor Murphy in particular, and from Dr Vermeulen, Professor Jeremy Turk and Professor Baron-Cohen. All have concluded that Gary McKinnon is an extreme suicide risk. In April this year, Dr Vermeulen said that Gary McKinnon was unfit for trial and an extreme suicide risk. Professor Jeremy Turk said in his 2012 report:

“In my professional expert opinion I continue to believe that Mr McKinnon can and will commit suicide rather than be extradited to the United States… Mr McKinnon continues to be in one of the most fragile of mental states imaginable and the reality of his mental distress and of the grave threat to his life continues to be very real.”

Based on his face-to-face assessment of Gary McKinnon in April this year, Professor Baron-Cohen said:

“In my opinion, Gary’s diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome remains very clear, and he is at very high suicide risk. He has an autistic unshakeable belief that… his only logical solution to avoid this outcome”—

extradition—

“is suicide.”

The position is that we have had three 2012 face-to-face assessments. My constituent has always agreed to be assessed by any experts in the field of autism and Asperger’s. The problem we have had in recent months is that the Home Office has insisted on the involvement of another expert, Professor Fahy—no doubt an eminent expert, but not an expert specifically in the field of autism. We therefore need to bear in mind the words of Professor Jeremy Turk, who has overseen the care of Gary McKinnon, pretty much throughout. Professor Turk is an expert in Asperger’s and he said:

“I am happy to go on record as believing that Gary has had an incredible number of most scholarly and expert opinions which are striking in their agreement and consensus regarding his having Asperger Syndrome, and a major and life-threatening depressive disorder. I see no indications, nor any utility, in exposing him to further evaluations, his single major need now being clarity regarding his status in relation to the spectre of extradition that continues to hang over him like A Sword of Damocles.”

18 Sep 2012 : Column 856

We want to remove that sword from over his head. We say, on the last day before parliamentary recess, that that decision needs to be made now.

The Gary McKinnon case has highlighted serious flaws in extradition arrangements. There have been debates, a resolution of the House relating to a review, and changes to arrangements, but at the end of the day—this is the point of my speech—I concur with what the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“Yet this case is about more than legal technicalities and political treaties. It is about compassion”.

It is about an individual who is living a nightmare. He is not just a case, or someone who is part of a campaign; he is an individual—a son and a partner—whose life has been on hold for the past 10 years. I want the House to hear the words of his indefatigable campaigning mother. Her son is, in some respects, like a child. We know from the expert opinion that Professor Simon Baron-Cohen gave in 2008 that Gary McKinnon’s

“emotional age or social intelligence is at the level of a child”.

His mother says:

“He hasn’t raped anyone, he hasn’t murdered anyone, so can’t understand how this can be happening to him, as no matter how much anyone may choose to exaggerate his crime, the fact is that his crime was tapping on a keyboard in his bedroom in north London in search of information on aliens from outer space. Gary rarely ever leaves his home as he is traumatised to the core. A boy who cycled, swam, composed music and sang, now sits in the dark with his cats and never wants to see or speak to anyone.

He has no life, and is broken, like a wounded animal with no outlet and no hope, seeing only the dark side and the cruelty that exists in the world.

My only child has lost 10 years of his youth and has aged and died before my eyes.”

Perhaps people will say that a decision to keep Gary McKinnon here would set a precedent. Perhaps the Home Office says that it would set a precedent for terrorists facing extradition. Let us consider other cases. Hacker Ryan Cleary admitted hacking into the Pentagon, NASA and the US air force. Aaron Caffrey hacked into US security systems and brought the port of Houston to a halt immediately after 9/11. Like Gary McKinnon, both were accused of hacking; like him, both have autism and Asperger’s syndrome; but unlike him, both have been tried in the United Kingdom.

Let us consider the cases of Róisín McAliskey and Shawn Sullivan. Like Gary McKinnon, they face extradition to the United States; unlike him, they face extremely serious charges of terrorism and paedophilia, and unlike him, they have had extradition requests refused. The only precedent being set by Gary McKinnon is that of facing the threat of extradition for 10 years, living in conditions not far short of house arrest. It is more like what would happen to someone living in Burma than Britain. It would be unprecedented to extradite him in the face of such compelling medical evidence. It would be totally disproportionate when he could be tried in this country.

In conclusion, I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to explain or find out—or, as is the convention, get a full Home Office response on—why a decision has not been made, given that two weeks have elapsed since the Olympics. We heard that the Home Secretary was overburdened and was, quite properly, focusing on the Olympics, but two weeks have gone by. The court set a deadline of 16 October, but can the Deputy Leader of

18 Sep 2012 : Column 857

the House assure us that the time scale for a decision is not affected by the parliamentary or party conference timetable, bearing in mind that Gary McKinnon’s life is hanging by a thread? If the decision cannot be made today, why not make it tomorrow? When a decision is made, will he ensure that the statement is made in the House?

Now is the time to decide. There is compelling medical evidence that provides a basis for a decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon, and to deliver justice and keep our promises to him. The final word goes to his mother, and I agree with what she says:

“Our government’s first duty is to protect British citizens, including our most vulnerable.”

There follow words to the Home Secretary:

“Please have the strength to do what is right and to give my son”,

and my constituent,

“his life back.”

4.49 pm

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Butterley reservoir spillway is located in the beautiful Yorkshire Pennine village of Marsden in my Colne Valley constituency. This stunning, stepped, stone spillway—not easy to say—was built by the Victorians between 1891 and 1906, and is a unique example of their engineering skill and endeavour. Overflow water from the reservoir flows down the stepped cascade, creating a wonderful visual image.

Yorkshire Water is poised to submit plans to rip out that stone-built, grade II-listed reservoir spillway and replace it with a concrete version. I have joined a rapidly growing group of local residents and heritage campaigners, backed by the cross-party support of local councillors, to form the Save Butterley Spillway campaign group, which has urged Yorkshire Water to repair and maintain the existing grade II-listed Victorian spillway, keeping it operational for regular water flows and to consider other options for containing unpredictable volumes of floodwater.

The Save Butterley Spillway group is not convinced that all options have been fully explored to preserve the unique heritage of this nationally significant Victorian structure. Indeed, Diane Ellis, one of the key members of the group, said:

“The village is popular with tourists, particularly walkers and cyclists, and visitors marvel at and admire Butterley spillway. The spillway looks like a grand staircase you might find at Chatsworth House or similar. As locals, we are very proud of it and we will do everything we can to save it”.

Yorkshire Water says that improvements to Butterley spillway are legally required to ensure that it is operationally fit for purpose and meets the very highest safety standards under the Reservoirs Act 1975. Yorkshire Water has reviewed and scrutinised its plans. The review involved members of Yorkshire Water, its contractors—Mott MacDonald Bentley—an independent panel engineer, local planners, and English Heritage. They looked again at solutions and said that they took into account criteria including reservoir safety legislation, health and safety legislation, heritage concerns and community feeling.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 858

The outcome of the review, which was guided predominantly by the independent panel engineer, led to the same option that Yorkshire Water had originally proposed—to replace the existing listed spillway with a concrete structure. Yorkshire Water plans to use mouldings in an attempt to recreate the 100-year-old-plus stone look, but as one Marsden resident said, “Why would you be happy with a fake themed Irish Pub when you’ve just had the original thing destroyed?” To be fair, Yorkshire Water has consulted the local community and stakeholders, and it held a live webchat about this very subject this lunchtime. Later this month, Yorkshire Water intends to make an application for planning permission to Kirklees council, which will refer the matter to English Heritage, as it relates to a listed building.

The Save Butterley Spillway campaign group has three requests. First, we want full transparency of all documentation, including access to an unedited version of the panel engineer’s report. Yorkshire Water says that this is not possible, citing “The Control of Sensitive Water Company Information—Advice Note 11”, which apparently prevents it from making public certain information relating to details of strategic locations for reasons of public security. Will Ministers provide clarification on that?

Secondly, will the spillway remain listed? The position of English Heritage is that the existing proposal would involve the demolition of a listed building, and constitutes “substantial harm”, which must be fully justified, as set out in the national planning policy framework. Thirdly, how do the Government intend to protect Butterley spillway from a water company that has the freedom, under its general permitted development rights, to undertake inappropriate development?

The construction of Butterley reservoir and the spillway was authorised by the Huddersfield Corporation Waterworks Act of 1890. The first sod was cut on Thursday 27 August 1891 by Alderman James Crosland, the deputy chairman of the waterworks committee. The project was completed in 1906, and the spillway was given grade II listing status on 11 July 1985. It is described in the listing as

“rock-faced coursed stone with ashlar dressings. Overflow with stone weirs and stepped stone cascades. Sidewalls are of rock-faced stone with squared ashlar piers with moulded pyramidal copings. Copings to walls are stepped.”

We urge Yorkshire Water to look again at its plans and find a way to save Butterley spillway as an operational and iconic listed Victorian structure.

4.56 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I am pleased, on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, that this debate has been set up today.

Hillsborough is a cover-up that has failed, although it took a long time to fail. Sadly, there are too many cover-ups that continue to succeed. For example, David Southall’s experiments, where he made babies breathe lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide, were covered up by the investigator calling CO an “inert gas”. My constituent Michael Andrews has revealed how he has come under pressure to misreport statistics by my local hospital. The response of the hospital management has been to take action against the whistleblower.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 859

There is a country where there are allegations that crimes by powerful people are not being investigated and prosecuted. A journalist has been refused entry to stop reporting about an issue. The chief of police has been suspended to stop him investigating crimes. Bloggers are being threatened to stop them talking about people. Decisions by the state not to prosecute cannot be challenged, nor is private prosecution allowed. The country is Jersey. The journalist is Leah McGrath Goodman, who is an American. The chief of police was Graham Power. Furthermore, Andrew Marolia, David Minty, David Wherry and Jonathan Sharrock Haworth have, with the assistance of the Jersey Government, obtained a super-injunction against ex-Senator Stuart Syvret—under the Data Protection Act of all things—to prevent from him saying things about them on his blog that are true. Mr Syvret has evidence that criminal offences are being swept under the carpet, but nothing is being done.

A lay judge—known as a jurat—called John le Breton has been allowed to sit as a jurat, even though he was vice-principal of Victoria college when he wrote to the governors in support of Andrew Jervis-Dykes, who ended up getting a jail sentence. Mr le Breton was appointed to judge on a case even though he is a personal friend of a director of the defendant—this is a defamation case where the local politician, Trevor Pitman, has been taking legal action against the local newspaper. The end result in Jersey is that part of these events has been struck from the state’s version of Hansard, and the culture of cover-up continues. Jersey is an independent country, but the UK Government have a responsibility for ensuring good governance in Jersey. The UK is not doing its job properly.

The UK is not as bad, but at times it has a good try. The situation in England and Wales is so bad that foreign countries are expressing concern about the abuse of human rights in the English courts. Over the weekend, there was a three-hour programme on Slovak television debating a case in England. In England, however, we are banned from discussing all the details of the case in the media. International conventions, such as The Hague convention and Brussels II bis, are predicated on the concept that each country can trust the legal system in each other country. As such, the country in which people are habitually resident determines the legal system that has jurisdiction. The existence of the Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights—it is not the European Union that deals with the ECHR—provides a body that can adjudicate on cases in the domestic courts. The Government of the Slovak Republic have publicly stated on the Slovak Justice Ministry website that they are willing to support their citizens in any case that reaches the Court. It is clear that the Slovak Government believe that there are a number of cases—not just one isolated case—where the human rights of their citizens are being undermined in England.

To my knowledge, this situation is unique. It does, however, raise the question of whether the human rights of UK citizens and others have been regularly and consistently abused in English and Welsh courts over a number of years. One recent Court of Appeal case involved a judge refusing permission to appeal because no evidence had been provided. The appellant had been given a deadline to provide that evidence by 4 pm on

18 Sep 2012 : Column 860

23 September 2011, which they had met by submitting the evidence earlier that day, but the judge had looked at the case before that had happened. It is therefore not surprising that the judge had concluded that the evidence was not there. That was a clear procedural error by the court administration, but domestic proceedings have now been exhausted. The case also involved a citizen of another country. That country has not yet expressed its view on the matter.

A slightly worse problem is referred to in early-day motion 536. The family division of the Court of Appeal appears not to be correcting all the public family law cases that reach it and that it should correct. Clearly, if it were to correct more of the lower court’s decisions, questions would be asked about how well the system was working, but maintaining public confidence in the system is not a good enough reason to sweep problems under the carpet. Permission to appeal was granted in a case today, however, so that is not always the case.

The only objective analysis of psychological expert reports from Professor Jane Ireland found that around two thirds of the reports submitted to the family courts in care proceedings were either poor or very poor. However, that does not appear to be being picked up by the appellate system. My estimate, on a statistical basis, is that around 1,000 children are wrongfully adopted each year. One advantage of having foreign countries’ human rights commissions reviewing cases affecting their citizens is that we can try to get a better estimate of the total number of miscarriages of justice. It would be nice if our Equality and Human Rights Commission were willing to look at these issues as well.

Michael Mansfield has suggested that the country needs a “commission of truth” to discover cover-ups. My response, in part, is that we already have a body that can do more on this. That body is Parliament. Parliament needs to be willing—collectively, through a Committee—to consider a limited number of individual cases, to work out whether there is evidence of a cover-up. It would not take much use of the collective power of Parliament to identify where a cover-up had happened.

Over the years, our constitution has, to some extent, failed. That has created a situation in which matters that should be more widely considered are being left within the judicial estate of the constitution. That applies particularly to cases involving a lot of secrecy, in which people are prevented from discussing matters. I have already mentioned the fact that Slovak television had a three-hour debate on an issue whose details we are not allowed to discuss. There might be a report in the UK media today following today’s hearing, which, although anonymous, might give some guide as to what has been going on. In practice, enough material is available to enable a three-hour discussion on Slovak television, yet we in the UK are unable to debate the matter.

It is clear from my discussions about other cases that this involves not only the Slovak Republic and one other country; other nations are concerned about the matter as well. People are also leaving this country for these reasons. A Channel 4 report broadcast before the recess highlighted the fact that people were leaving this country because they felt they could not get a fair trial in the family courts in the UK. I follow such cases all around the world, and I will be happy to talk to colleagues about them if they are interested. Such cases

18 Sep 2012 : Column 861

demonstrate that the system is not working. However, I had some news today that makes me think that perhaps it might work better in future. These are complex systems.

From a scientific point of view, there has been a tendency to try to rely on unreliable opinion. I was a member of Birmingham city council for 18 years, and its deputy leader for a year, so I got quite used to the council’s operation. The Ministry of Justice believes that an assessment is the same, whether it is carried out by an employee of the council or by an independent assessor. I know, however, that councils are set targets. For example, Surrey county council has been working on its performance assessment figure C23 target to try to increase the number of adoptions from care. We know that the Prime Minister wishes to see more such adoptions taking place, and there is pressure on local government to increase their numbers. That tends to go down the management structure, and those people employed by the council are therefore subject to a conflict of interest. This is nothing new; it has been the case for over 12 years.

I think the Ministry of Justice is making a really big mistake when it considers in the family justice review that a report written by an employee of the council has equal merit to a report written by, say, an independent social worker. The advantage of having an independent social worker is that such a worker is genuinely independent. If a system is run on a cab-rank basis, some independent consideration of the issues is likely, which would not be the case if it was driven by the management structure of the local authority.

Anyone with any experience of local government will understand that biases and pressures are often placed on employees, and sometimes there are bullying management systems. The difficulty comes when judicial decisions are made that rely on that skewed information. As I say, this is nothing new; it has been going on for a long time. Hon. Members will be aware that I often bounce up and down about this issue. At least I now have some Government support—sadly, it is not from the UK Government, but from the Slovak Republic. I would prefer that the UK Government recognised what the Slovak Republic recognises, which is that there are very serious problems here.

I think this matter will go a lot further. Today’s hearing is very positive and things will develop from it. I am aware of the concerns of other east European Governments about exactly the same issue. They might decide to take a robust position in the same way as the Human Rights Commission did in the Slovak Republic. It is unclear whether any of these cases will get before the European Court of Human Rights so that we will see a representative from the UK Government arguing for the UK’s position and a representative from a foreign Government arguing from the alternative perspective. Obviously, if a matter is corrected in the Court of Appeal or in the Supreme Court, it will not get there, but it would be interesting to see how the European Court of Human Rights or the European Court of Justice, which I think has a similar jurisdiction for the purposes of EU members, dealt with this issue. This is a really big problem; there has been a really big cover-up, and it needs to be sorted out.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 862

5.7 pm

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about some specific issues that affect my constituency. First, I would like to pay tribute to the Government for their determination to move to a greater localist agenda, to give communities a far better say over what happens in their area. That can only be a good thing.

Northamptonshire was certainly subjected to enormous amounts of top-down bureaucratic management under the previous Government, who were determined to concrete over the green fields and to implement regional strategies for everything, which bore no relation whatever to what local communities wanted. We have definitely moved in the right direction as a Government. There are, however, some very specific problems that concern my constituency, and I shall raise just two of them today.

The first concerns wind farms. Northamptonshire is not known at all for being a windy place. In fact, it is one of the least windy counties in the country. Clearly, we are not given to providing enormous renewable energy resources—yet we have had so many wind farms approved in our county that we have contributed more than what could be seen as our fair share towards any renewable strategy.

I shall specifically mention the Spring Farm ridge development, in and around the villages of Greatworth, Helmdon and Sulgrave—historic villages with great character. The application by the developer, Broadview Energy, to build a wind farm in the area was rejected by South Northamptonshire council on 30 June 2011. The case went to appeal, and the appeal was upheld on 12 July 2012. On refusing the application to develop Spring Farm ridge, the council found

“that the development would have a major impact on the landscape as it currently exists, have considerable impact on some of the many heritage assets within 5km of the proposed wind farm, result in the loss of a perception of tranquillity to the well-used public rights of ways network, dominate the outlook, be unpleasantly imposing and pervasive to a neighbouring resident and be contrary to several local and regional planning policies”.

What is interesting is that the planning inspectorate accepted all those findings, but still upheld the appeal.

Since then I have had an exchange of letters with the Department for Communities and Local Government and with Sir Michael Pitt, the chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate. I explained how appalled local residents were to find that the planning appeals inspector had upheld the appeal despite accepting all the council’s contrary findings of invasiveness. The response of the DCLG, in July 2012, was

“local plans are the keystone of the planning system. Our aim is for every area to have a clear local plan which sets out local people’s views of how they wish their community to develop, consistent with the Framework and against which planning applications for planning permission will be judged.”

That is clearly in the interests of localism and takes account of the views of local communities.

Sir Michael Pitt’s response to the same question about how local views could have been so overruled was

“the recently published National Planning Policy Framework… provided an important and up-to-date expression of national renewable energy policy, and this has… been taken into account. Such decisions”

18 Sep 2012 : Column 863

—appeal decisions—

“involve a careful balancing exercise. In this case, considerable weight was given to the Framework and the economic and environmental benefits of the proposal were considered to outweigh the adverse impact of the scheme.”

Therein lies the problem. Whereas we, as a Government, are in favour of greater localism and of people’s ability to have their say, the inspectorate—while not rejecting those findings, but accepting and welcoming them—is clearly determined to insist that the national desire for renewable energy outweighs those local concerns.

My first question to the Deputy Leader of the House is this: how can we enable local communities to feel confident that it is worth their while to express their views? In this instance, many thousands of pounds were spent and hundreds of hours of local communities’ time, energy and intellect were invested in establishing the planning-related reasons why the wind farm application might be turned down, only for those reasons to be completely overturned. What hope can we give local people that their voices will be heard—indeed, not just heard, but actually listened to—and that they will be able to resist developments that are completely contrary to local wishes?

My second question to the Deputy Leader of the House is very specific. When will the regional strategies finally disappear? According to a second response from Sir Michael Pitt,

“Planning law requires that Inspectors determine an appeal in accordance with the adopted Development Plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. The weight afforded to plan policies reflects both their progress in terms of formal adoption and whether more recent policy, either local or national, has superseded them to some degree. In this case the Inspector carefully considered the relevant Development Plan policies and also other material considerations as well as the views of local residents.”

I have the impression that the inspectors were looking more to the past and the regional strategy of the last Government than to the future and the present Government’s desire to let local people have their say. When will that change?

My final question to the Deputy Leader of the House is this: will the existence of a regional plan or, indeed, a neighbourhood plan allow communities to reject either the principle or the siting of a wind farm? Will the implementation of the new local plan under the Localism Act 2011 enable them to reject such an unwelcome siting successfully?

Already, in my small area of south Northamptonshire, a wind farm application has been approved on appeal for Spring Farm ridge. Applications have been approved for Winwick, near Daventry, and for Boddington, and are pending for Ml, Roade, Stoke Goldington and Milton Keynes. The Tove valley and Ml application is proposed, and a new wind farm is proposed for Wappenham. How shall we ever convince local communities that they can fight their corner with some prospect of success?

The second point that I want to make is slightly different. It concerns the west Northamptonshire joint planning unit, which was set up under the last Government to force the local planning authorities of Northampton borough, Daventry and South Northamptonshire, with the support of Northamptonshire county council, to implement the last Government’s regional spatial strategy.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 864

In other words, it was the tool to implement the previous Government’s top-down RSS, without a great deal of consultation with local people, but the WNJPU still exists under the new Government. Although theoretically it is made up of democratically accountable councillors, each of the four councils that take part in its leadership have only two representatives on the committee. There is no democratic accountability, therefore—in fact, quite the opposite, as each council planning authority is incentivised to stitch up their neighbour and avoid looking holistically at the entire area. That has been incredibly divisive in South Northamptonshire and Northampton, where we have ended up with proposed developments and approvals for development sites that have run entirely counter to local community requirements and wishes.

One such example is at Collingtree, which is in my constituency but on the outskirts of Northampton. The WNJPU is proposing to approve in principle a plan for 1,000 new homes there, despite the local community’s concerns. It has concerns about traffic congestion caused by vehicles coming to the site, where delays of up to half an hour already occur at peak times. It also has concerns about flooding, because there has regularly been flooding of previous developments that were supposed to have proper flood defence plans. Public transport provision is a worry, too. The estimates for this 1,000-home development include only 1.5 cars per property. Unless public transport is superb, that will not be adequate. Yet another major concern is school provision. The residents of Collingtree feel these concerns are not being taken into account by the WNJPU, which is a relic of a previous Government with a top-down ethos.

I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to advise me on what I can do to help my constituents ensure that their voice is heard. Can he help me to get the WNJPU disbanded and have planning powers given back to the local planning authorities, where they should be? Does he agree that local plans should be accepted and recognised as good for the community only if they are supported by that community and that it is therefore unacceptable for organisations such as the WNJPU to continue operating undemocratic area-wide plans?

5.18 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). I had no idea there were so many issues involving wind farms in her constituency. When I travel up the M1 to Leicester on Friday, I shall be looking out for them, and I know that if local people need a champion against them, they have the best possible MP, as the hon. Lady’s speech today illustrates.

I wish to talk about violent video games. I want to make it clear that I am not against video games as such. I know that members of the public—and, indeed, Members of this House—play them and that the Prime Minister’s favourite video game is “Fruit Ninja”. I am not against those who play video games, therefore, but I have had concerns about violent video games for a number of years.

The issue was brought to my attention by the mother of a 14-year-old young man, Stefan Pakeerah, who was stabbed repeatedly by 17-year-old Warren Leblanc in Leicester in 2004. During the trial it became clear that

18 Sep 2012 : Column 865

Warren Leblanc had become obsessed with a game called “Manhunt”. My interest in examining the issues associated with video games began with that case. Mrs Pakeerah and I had meetings with successive Prime Ministers, all of whom promised to do more to deal with violent video games.

I am glad to say that progress has been made, and I will discuss that later in my speech, but unfortunately some of the games have become even more violent. Only a few weeks ago, the coroner in the inquest in the case of Callum Green, a 14-year-old who committed suicide in Stockport after playing “Call of Duty” on a regular basis with his stepfather, said the following about video games:

“It’s very important that young children don’t play them or have access to them.”

Anders Breivik, who has recently been convicted of the murder of 69 young people on an island outside Oslo, was shown in his trial also to be obsessed with “Call of Duty”. In March 2012, Mohamed Merah killed seven people in three gun attacks in Toulouse, and he, too, was obsessed with the same violent video game.

I am not saying that over-18s should be prevented from playing any games that they want; my concern has always been that these games fall into the hands of under-18s, some of whom become susceptible to the violence played out in them. People have asked what the difference is between somebody getting into an 18-plus film and somebody playing a video game. The difference is that a violent video game is interactive. Obviously I do not support under-18s going to see violent films, but even if they get in to view a film they are not participants in what is going on.

A lot of independent research has been done on this matter. The university of Indiana found that young men who played violent video games for 10 hours a week exhibited less activity in frontal brain regions associated with emotional control and cognitive functions. Other research conducted by universities all points to problems that occur with young people—those under the age of 18—having access to these games, which is why the previous Government set up the Byron review. Tanya Byron, a celebrated columnist for The Times, produced an excellent report, but the tragedy is that her recommendations have still not been implemented.

The Deputy Leader of the House will be making his first speech from the Dispatch Box, and I congratulate him most warmly on his appointment. He is a former member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and I said to other members of the Committee, “Look how well he has done.” If they all work hard and eat their cereals, they will end up speaking for the Government one day. I congratulate him, because I know that when he replies he will be examining the points I am making. Will he please tell us when he anticipates the Byron review being implemented? Tanya Byron did a great job, and it is extremely important that if we set up commissions—I know that this was done under the previous Government—we actually accept their recommendations.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 866

There are three responsibilities associated with violent video games, the first of which is the responsibility of the video games makers. We, in London, are at the heart of the creative industries. The Government have recently given tax breaks to video games makers, who have a responsibility to ensure that when they produce games of a violent nature they accept that there is a possibility that the games will fall into the hands of children.

When we started this campaign, many years ago, the size of the warning on the packet was very small—it was non-existent. It was then increased to about the size of a 1p piece and, eventually, to the size of a 10p piece. The first responsibility is that when the packaging is produced it should make it very clear that the video game is violent so that everybody knows that it is for someone over the age of 18.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): On that specific point, games such as “Call of Duty” have clear age guidelines that are regulated by PEGI—Pan European Game Information—and clearly show the age-rating and a brief summary of the content. However, we all need collectively to ensure that parents are aware of the new rating systems so that they can make suitable decisions on behalf of their children.

Keith Vaz: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. That was the third of my three points. The first was about the game’s maker, so let us move on to the second, which is about parents.

I am the parent of a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is the parent of two young children, although I do not know how old they are. When I go into my children’s room—they have a joint room where they have their computers—even I do not pick up the video games they are watching and check whether the content is suitable for their age, but that is the responsibility of parents. I wonder how many parents buy video games to ensure that their children enjoy themselves playing the games and leave their parents in peace. Parents have a big responsibility to check the contents of what their children are watching, and if we can do that we will help with the problem of violent video games.

I urge anyone who has young children under the age of 18 to go tonight into their bedrooms or sitting rooms—wherever the video games are kept—and check the age limit on those games. I would be amazed if they did not find that at least one or two were meant for those over the age of 18.

The third element of responsibility belongs, of course, to the Government. I mentioned the implementation of the PEGI system and I was delighted to hear in May 2012 that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was going to end the dual ratings system to ensure that there is one easily enforceable ratings system. That is a very important step forward, because if the Government try to clear away the additional regulations and make one clear set of guidelines that everyone can understand that will make a huge difference to those who manufacture video games and those who sell them.

Part of the Government’s responsibility is for enforcement. During our last Attorney-General’s questions, I asked how many retailers had been prosecuted for selling 18-plus games to those under the age of 18. I was

18 Sep 2012 : Column 867

told that no retailers had been prosecuted; perhaps the Minister can update us on whether those figures have increased. The responsibility rests with the retailers, those who sit at the checkout counters and those who sell games at outlets such as GAME to check the age of those who buy the games, and I do not think that that happens. When someone goes to a supermarket and takes a violent game up to the checkout counter, the pressure on those sitting at the tills means that it is difficult to check first the rating and then the age of that person.

I want to see better enforcement. If those games are sold to those under the age of 18, I want to make sure that those responsible—I do not care whether it is GAME, Tesco or Sainsbury’s—are prosecuted. I think that a high-profile prosecution—I know that all Governments are keen on such prosecutions—would make a huge difference to those wishing to sell video games.

I will end by referring to the words of one person who is responsible for the sale of more video games than any other person in the world, Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario. In a recent interview he urged children to drop their joysticks and venture outside every once in a while. Let us do the same. The university of Essex conducted a survey of 315 Essex 10-year-olds in 2008 and compared them with the same number of 10-year-olds in 1998. It found that the number of sit-ups the kids could do had declined by 27%, their arm strength had fallen by 26% and their grip strength had fallen by 7%, because they were sitting at home playing video games rather than going outside. There is a health aspect to this. If we want to ensure that our children are less obese, let them put down their joysticks, as Super Mario says, and go out and start playing. Ultimately, this is not about censorship; it is about protecting our children.

5.31 pm

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this pre-recess debate on an issue close to both your heart, Mr Deputy Speaker, and that of the Deputy Leader of the House: the role of councils and social housing managers in the regeneration of our cities. By way of background, the housing estate owned by the city council in my constituency is managed by Gloucester City Homes, an arm’s length management organisation. GCH has already played an important part in regeneration through its successful management of the council estate. Its record of improvements has led to a remarkable series of stars and awards, and I know the high levels of trust and confidence that tenants now have in GCH and the difference its proactive approach is making to thousands of lives.

But for me and for my constituents, there is more to be done, not least because, like many cities, we have a significant council house waiting list of some 5,000 people and a need for more social housing. I would love to see Gloucester City Homes replace outdated blocks of flats in parts of the city, especially in Matson and Podsmead wards, with new homes and more attractive landscaping that would be in keeping with, for example, the wonderful setting of Matson on the slopes of Robinswood hill. That would require significant capital investment, which would, because ALMOs are owned by councils, contribute to the Government’s public sector borrowing requirement,

18 Sep 2012 : Column 868

add to the vast mountains of debt built up under the previous Government’s less than eagle eyes and, therefore, not be helpful to the health of our public finances.

Gloucester’s challenge, therefore, was to come up with an imaginative proposal so that GCH could use its balance sheet and predictable earning stream for a capital investment programme to regenerate our social housing. GCH and the city council made a detailed proposal to the Department for Communities and Local Government last autumn, with new community council—CoCo—ownership, where the council would own only a third of the equity of the company and the remainder would be outside state ownership. I understand that the Government have both principle, meaning responsibility for any residual liabilities in a worse-case scenario, and practicality, meaning debt write-offs, to consider. None the less, I also understand that the previous Housing Minister, who was sympathetic to the cause, had to face cross-Department interests, particularly from the Treasury, which complicated decision making.

Now, almost one year on and at a time when all Government Members are keen to see faster progress on housing and infrastructure development, I urge DCLG and the Treasury to help find a way forward for Gloucester City Homes to contribute to the Government’s national, and our own local, ambitions for regeneration, construction and growth.

I received a welcome letter this week from the new Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), saying that DCLG officials will meet Gloucester City Homes in Gloucester shortly. I would be delighted if, before the first anniversary of our proposals, national and local government and the ALMO agreed on a brief process that would enable action as soon as possible. If we can get on and lead by example in Gloucester, where the CoCo model has such wide support, the new Minister may also be able to unlock further opportunities across the land and stimulate new social housing that will make a difference to people’s lives. As Winston Churchill once noted:

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.]

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will relay my encouragement to the Ministers and officials concerned.

5.35 pm

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am glad to have this opportunity to discuss a vexed issue of tax policy, namely air passenger duty, which has been described succinctly by the TaxPayers Alliance as an unwelcome burden on family holidays, a cost to business and redundant now that the European Union’s emissions trading system is being applied to aviation.

I declare an interest at the outset as the constituency Member of Parliament for Peterborough, which houses the international headquarters of Thomas Cook, so tourism and leisure issues are important to me. This is also a wider issue relating to business competitiveness, the impact on family budgets and household incomes, and the ongoing debate about sustainability, the environment and climate change.

The fair tax on flying campaign has been one of the most successful campaigns in recent parliamentary history. More than 130,000 individuals have written to their MPs in support of early-day motion 174, which calls on

18 Sep 2012 : Column 869

the Government to undertake a comprehensive study of the full economic effects of aviation tax in the United Kingdom, including its impact on employment.

APD was introduced in 1994 at an original rate of £5 per person for short-haul flights and £10 for flights elsewhere. In 2008, the then Government announced that the per-plane duty proposal that they had suggested the previous year would not go ahead and that, instead, APD rates and geographical bands would be restructured. Following the general election, the coalition Government have explored plans to switch to a per-plane duty, as outlined in both the coalition agreement and the 2010 emergency Budget. The overall APD tax take increased significantly from 1 April 2012, after the Government implemented an 8% APD increase.

A typical family of four pays an average of more than £115 in APD each year. A family of four flying in economy class to Florida from the UK would pay £262 in APD, whereas in France the equivalent tax is £38. Compared with seven years ago, APD rates have risen 160% on short-haul flights and up to 360% on long-haul flights, with inflation over that period being about 18%.

The tax has a significant and deleterious effect on the economy. The British Chambers of Commerce found that APD could cost the economy a staggering £10 billion in lost growth and up to 250,000 fewer jobs over the next 20 years. Many European countries, including Belgium, Holland and Denmark, have abandoned their aviation taxes because of the negative effects on their economies. In the longer term, analysis undertaken by Oxera in 2009 shows that the UK economy will forgo £750 million in wealth and 18,000 jobs because of the rises in APD since November 2010, with about half of the extra revenue raised offset by tax revenue losses in the wider economy.

Although it has to be conceded that the research on APD is piecemeal, it does point to significant damage to the economy in the long run. The Government’s figures project 7,000 fewer flights in 2011-12 as a result of the APD increase in 2010. A 2011 report by York Aviation estimated that APD would result in Scotland losing 1.2 million passengers, 148,000 tourists and £77 million in revenue by 2014.

Aviation is vital to the UK economy. It contributes £53.3 billion or 3.8% of GDP. It supports 963,000 UK jobs—352,000 directly in the sector and 344,000 indirectly through the supply chain. A massive amount of economic activity is dependent on the success of tourism, leisure and aviation.

Keith Vaz: There is a burden on the traveller not only through the additional tax, but through the increase in the cost of visas.

Mr Jackson: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the impact on people who take long-haul flights, such as to India or the Caribbean.

APD is having a significant impact on people who want to come to the UK from growth economies, such as China. Such people would spend money and drive growth. In 2011, the Tourism Alliance produced a report entitled “Air Passenger Duty: the Impact on Visitors from China”, which found that the UK’s share of the

18 Sep 2012 : Column 870

Chinese market had more than halved from 0.5% in 2001 to 0.2% in 2010. If the UK had retained its share of the outbound market from China, it would have gained more than £1 billion in additional tourism revenue from China over the last decade.

Britain has the highest air taxation of all European Union and G20 countries. It is so high that the Treasury will collect more than twice as much in passenger taxes this year as all other European countries combined. Only five other countries in Europe have a similar tax. In August 2010, the German Government approved an air travel levy. It was introduced on 1 January 2011 and ranges from the equivalent of about £7 per passenger for short trips to £39 for long-haul trips. That is well below the UK’s APD, which starts at £13 for short-haul trips. In 2009, the Netherlands followed Belgium in abandoning its equivalent of APD because, although it raised the equivalent of £266 million in one year, the Dutch calculated that the loss to the wider economy was more than £950 million. Germany has set its rate at about half the UK’s level.

Given that one of the Government’s economic ambitions is for Britain to have the most competitive tax system in the G20, it is extraordinary that the World Economic Forum’s recent tourism competitiveness report ranked the UK 134th out of 138 countries for air ticket taxes and airport charges. That was before the 8% rise in the last Budget.

This tax is having a direct effect on constituents across the country—ordinary working people on modest salaries who want to go on holiday. That is the important point that Treasury Ministers need to think about when preparing next year’s Budget.

The British Chambers of Commerce has found that UK airports believe that rises in APD have contributed to a number of key routes being lost at local airports. Peel Airports, which operates Liverpool John Lennon airport, Robin Hood airport Doncaster Sheffield, and Durham Tees Valley airport, provided an analysis of its lost routes in a joint submission to the Treasury by the Northern Way, a coalition of regional development agencies in the north of England. Following the doubling of APD in 2007 and the subsequent rises, Liverpool John Lennon lost six domestic services, five European services and two long-haul services to north America, and Robin Hood airport Doncaster Sheffield lost one domestic service, six European services and three long-haul services.

People will inevitably say that this tax is about maintaining some kind of traction on air travel and aviation in order to reduce the dangers of climate change. However, attempts to justify the tax on environmental grounds have been unpersuasive, and particularly with the application of the EU emissions trading scheme to the aviation sector, I believe that the aviation tax should eventually be phased out.

In his 2011 book “Let them Eat Carbon”, the chief executive of the TaxPayers Alliance, Matthew Sinclair, noted research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that suggests that by 2050 aviation will still be responsible for only 5% of the human contribution to climate change. That figure, although significant, is still pretty marginal. With aviation expected to continue to make up such a small share of global emissions, stopping people flying is not critical to limiting climate change, and we know that aeroplanes are now quieter, cleaner

18 Sep 2012 : Column 871

and more efficient than ever. APD is excessive, unfair and inefficient as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it is duplicated in a number of other policy interventions. I therefore believe that it should eventually be abolished.

In their working paper “The impact of the UK aviation tax on carbon dioxide emissions and visitor numbers”, Mayor and Tol found that the 2007 increase in UK aviation tax had had

“the perverse effect of increasing carbon dioxide emissions, albeit only slightly,”

while reducing the number of travellers to Britain.

A 2008 cost assessment by the Department for Transport found that the aviation tax was excessive following the doubling of air passenger duty rates in February 2007. The Government have since—surprise, surprise—stopped carrying out such studies, but results show that even with a high estimate for the social cost of carbon, it is hard to justify the current APD rates on the basis of aviation’s contribution to climate change.

In the run-up to the autumn statement and next year’s Budget in March, the Government have an excellent opportunity to reconsider this tax, which I believe is regressive, inefficient and, above all, damaging to what we all care about—British jobs and British growth. Even more important, we as hon. Members must defend the interests of our constituents. They are not wealthy and do not own Learjets and jet across the world at the drop of a hat, but are decent working people who wish to have a holiday with their family. At the moment, we are clobbering them, but next year we have a real opportunity to right that wrong and bring in a fair tax regime that will compare with other such regimes across the world. We should do the right thing, and I believe that over the next few years, this tax should come to an end.

Although no Treasury Ministers are sitting on the Front Bench, I hope that they will listen to people power—some 130,000 people have written to hon. Members about this issue, and it is time for a change.

5.48 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Rail franchising has been much in the news over the past week or two, although principally with regard to the west coast main line. Today, however, is the closing date for the Department for Transport’s consultation on the invitation to tender for the east coast main line—an issue of paramount importance to my constituency.

Until 1990, my constituency of Cleethorpes had a direct service to King’s Cross, and four trains went in each direction. Before that, the route ran along the east Lincolnshire line, although that fell foul of the Beeching axe in 1970 after a long struggle.

An open access operator was considering the possibility of providing a service, in which case the line would run from Cleethorpes, through Grimsby and Scunthorpe, and join the main line at Doncaster. I hope that the invitation to tender that goes out from the Department in the coming weeks will include a requirement for a direct service from Cleethorpes and Grimsby to King’s Cross. I imagine that the most likely route would be through Market Rasen and Lincoln, joining the main line at Newark.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 872

The Government have recognised northern Lincolnshire and my constituency as prime areas for economic growth, as the designation of the biggest enterprise zone in the UK shows. There have also been other moves such as the welcome reduction in Humber bridge tolls. The port of Immingham, which would be served by a stop at Habrough, is the largest port in the country by tonnage, and 25% of all rail freight moved within the UK, again measured by tonnage, starts or ends there. There is also potential for a stop at Barnetby, which is currently the stop for Humberside International airport. Since the airport terminal is a mere quarter of a mile from the train line, perhaps there is potential for a new station and the development of connections to London, which would help the development of the regional airport strategy.

Paragraph 5.1 of the document that the Department for Transport has issued states that one key objective of the new services should be to

“support economic growth through provision of train services of appropriate frequency, journey time and capacity.”

The franchisee should also use

“flexibility in the train service requirements to optimise services, delivering a balance of commercial and passenger benefits in line with value for money and affordability criteria”.

Paragraph 9.3 states:

“We intend that the train service specification should provide greater flexibility for the franchisee to respond to demographic and market changes and commercial opportunities than is the case under the current arrangements.”

The Government have indicated their support for potential economic growth in northern Lincolnshire, and those aims and objectives clearly support that. A through train service could provide an additional boost, so I urge Ministers to include it in the Department’s invitation to tender for the east coast franchise.

5.52 pm

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I wish to raise a matter of importance to my constituents and those of many other Members, namely the availability of borrowing to small and medium-sized businesses and, particularly, the monitoring of that lending activity.

Most of us will have spoken to local business people who lament the lack of access to finance and lending facilities. Over the recess, I met a small number of business owners who indicated that their experiences had improved little in the past year. Although banks have repeatedly stated that they are open for business and ready and willing to lend to small and medium-sized enterprises, I continue to receive complaints about aggressive management of existing loans, reduced overdraft facilities and a general lack of flexibility in the approach of banks, all of which place otherwise viable businesses under stress.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that, in some cases, when businesses approach banks to seek an extension of their facilities, bank officials are pressuring them into accepting unwelcome changes to the terms and conditions of their existing loans, or into reducing their borrowing through asset disposal. In the current economic climate, people’s ability to shop around for a better deal is somewhat constrained. The wider impact of that on our economy and its recovery is reflected in the fact that the Government have placed considerable emphasis on initiatives to increase the availability of bank lending

18 Sep 2012 : Column 873

specifically to the SME sector. For example, one key aim of Project Merlin was to ensure that banks would commit to lending more money, especially to small businesses. However, that has been superseded by new credit easing plans. Initially there was the national loan guarantee scheme, which was again aimed at encouraging such lending.

As market conditions changed, making it less economical for banks to raise unsecured funding, the Government again responded. On 1 August, they introduced the funding for lending scheme to incentivise bank lending to UK households and businesses by allowing banks that increase lending to borrow more from the fund, and at lower cost. Taken in conjunction with the business finance partnership, the enterprise finance guarantee scheme and other recent announcements by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it is clear that lack of access to affordable lending for business is recognised as a significant problem, a barrier to recovery, and an area to which the Government continue to give considerable attention in search of a solution.

We could probably have a lengthy and lively debate about how effective some of those interventions have been, but I want to focus on two specific issues in the monitoring of lending activity: first, the degree to which announcements of new UK-wide initiatives lead to an improved situation for Northern Ireland’s consumers; and, secondly, the lack of consistency and clarity in the way in which lending generally, and new lending in particular, is defined by the banks.

First, as banking is a reserved matter, work undertaken at UK-wide level will, and indeed should, have a direct impact on my constituents, but there is considerable scepticism as to whether it has done so meaningfully to date. In Northern Ireland, only one of the main banks participated in Project Merlin, owing largely to the structural differences between the Northern Ireland and UK banking sectors. Two of the four main Northern Ireland banks have parent banks in the Republic of Ireland, while a third has its parent bank in Denmark, leaving only one with a parent bank here in the UK. Furthermore, no regional targets for lending were included in the Merlin scheme, with the result that its effectiveness in Northern Ireland, and the reasons behind that performance, were not able to be monitored or to be taken into account when devising replacement arrangements or new incentives. The result was that the national loan guarantee scheme replicated some of those problems where participating banks accounted for a smaller proportion of the Northern Ireland business market than would have been the case in most other regions.

To bridge the gap in regional monitoring, quarterly figures have been provided to the Northern Ireland Finance Minister through the British Bankers Association statistics, “Bank Support for Businesses in Northern Ireland”, for monitoring purposes. These confidential figures are based on the information provided to the BBA by the four main Northern Ireland banks and are intended to allow monitoring of the levels of lending to SMEs, as well as other activity. However, as banking is not devolved, the Finance Minister can neither require banks to provide that information nor require them to

18 Sep 2012 : Column 874

do so in a particular format, and as the statistics are deemed commercially sensitive there can be little open scrutiny of their content.

This is a matter that Northern Ireland Members have raised often in this House and with Treasury Ministers. In a statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier today, the Finance Minister indicated that the Treasury has agreed to monitor the participation of Northern Ireland banks in the funding for lending scheme, which is a huge step forward that I strongly welcome. However, for that monitoring to be meaningful and effective, there must be some transparency and consistency in how lending is measured and reported by banks.

That leads me to my second point. For some time, there has appeared to be a gap between the headline figures for new lending by the banks and the experience of those who are seeking to borrow money and finding it difficult to do so. This may be at least partly a result of the lack of consistent definition of what constitutes new lending. This is not a new problem, nor is it unique to Northern Ireland. Research that I obtained from the House of Commons Library confirmed that the Merlin agreement did not include any detail on the definition of “lending” or, in particular, on what constitutes new lending. Since then, the underlying problem of the inconsistent definition of what is included in bank lending figures and what constitutes new lending has apparently remained unresolved.

In the summer I wrote to the main Northern Ireland banks about the breakdown in new lending that they had made available to businesses over the course of the past year. Each institution stressed that the information was commercially sensitive. Furthermore, I would not want to expose those who shared more detailed information with me to a criticism of their approach when it may be no worse or, in fact, better than that of some of their competitors who chose not to be so open and frank. I will therefore refrain from citing any specifics that could identify individual lenders and focus instead on broad trends, which indicate that the actual figures for what the average person would consider to be new lending may well be considerably less than the headline figures that are published. In one case, over 90% of advertised new lending was to existing customers. That is perhaps not surprising, as there are strong commercial reasons why it would be easier to lend to an existing customer than to a new customer. An established relationship, with knowledge of the borrower’s credit history, business cash flow, management strength, and business model, gives the lender confidence that they will be able to service the debt and ultimately repay their loan. However, the fact that that bias extended to 90% of all new lending in that year was more surprising. Given that the remainder would include people who were switching facilities from other banks, and therefore had a well-established credit history, it demonstrates what a small proportion of overall new lending is likely to be to new businesses, correlating with the anecdotal evidence that they, in particular, struggle to get access to the finance they require. Given the importance of innovation and new business set-ups to the economy, and the emphasis placed on those by the Government, this is an area of real concern.

Further examination showed that that new lending also included overdraft renewal and loan restructuring. The lending offered to customers in such circumstances

18 Sep 2012 : Column 875

might be no more than was originally the case—it might even be reduced—but it would still be captured by the bank as new lending. Furthermore, it might be accompanied by a worsening of terms and conditions with the result that, although offered and counted towards targets for new lending, it might never be drawn by the company with that agreement. However, it would still count towards new lending in that an agreement had indeed been reached and approved.

From my discussions with banks, there seems to be considerable variation in what is captured by their internal systems as new lending for monitoring and recording purposes. For one bank, new lending figures would not include an extension of existing overdraft facilities or extending the repayment period of an existing loan, in contrast to some of its competitors. However, it also revealed not only that its definition of new lending would capture an existing loan that was increased, but that the entirety of the final loan sum would be captured as new lending, not merely as an increase in the borrowing.

Mr Jim Cunningham: Does the hon. Lady agree that one purpose of quantitative easing was to free up money to help small businesses? Instead, the banks have been using it towards their own debts.

Naomi Long: It would certainly appear from the brief analysis that I have undertaken of banks that service my constituency, and indeed service Northern Ireland, that there has not been a significant increase in lending to small business. That should concern us all.

To return to my point, if a business with a loan of £90,000 borrowed an additional £10,000, the entire £100,000 loan would be captured by that bank’s system as new lending. That is perhaps an extreme example, but it shows the significant distortion to new lending figures that might occur, depending on what is captured by the bank’s internal systems. Given that most new lending is to existing customers, that factor could be very significant. The effect may be offset somewhat by comparing new-lending figures with a bank’s stock of lending—that is, the outstanding loans to be repaid—but there is a lack of transparency and consistency in what is measured, and indeed publicised, by banks, particularly as they most frequently use the new-lending figures to defend themselves against criticism that they are making it difficult for SMEs to access lending.

While the UK Government clearly recognise the importance of access to borrowing for UK households and businesses, there needs to be increased monitoring of the impact and a tailoring of initiatives to Northern Ireland markets, where the banking sector is distinct and different from that in other parts of the UK. The matter is not devolved, and proactive consideration of it in this place is crucial.

Furthermore, in the interests of transparency, there needs to be a clearer and more consistent definition across the banking sector of what constitutes new lending, and of the methods of measuring and reporting on banks’ lending activity generally, so that when such figures are quoted in isolation they remain meaningful and a useful tool to measure the impact of Government lending initiatives where that matters most—in the businesses across my constituency and the constituencies of other Members.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 876

6.3 pm

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): With great pleasure, I shall take the opportunity to discuss expanding the opportunities of the national citizenship scheme. The scheme is aimed at 16 to 17-year-olds from different backgrounds to provide an opportunity to make a difference in their local community. Last year, 8,000 young people took part, and the ambition is to extend the scheme to all 16 to 17-year-olds. With that in mind, I want to set out what I saw during the summer recess and what I hope to see in much greater numbers in the future.

The scheme gives young people from all backgrounds valuable life experience, as it takes them away from home and gets them to work together. It builds confidence and skills, including teamwork and communication skills. Crucially, it improves employability. During the summer recess, I visited the National Citizen Service schemes in Swindon on no fewer than five occasions, covering each and every stage of the process, from the outdoor and planning stages to projects in action and, ultimately, the graduation ceremony.

Across the constituencies of North Swindon and South Swindon, 43 young people from Swindon college and 27 people from New college took part. The teams enjoyed a week at PGL Liddington, during which they learned survival skills, though I note that when I went along and offered my great expertise they promptly, and probably rightly, ignored everything that I suggested. They also went camping in Weymouth ahead of the Olympics.

Then the two colleges split into four teams. Each chose a distinctive local issue that mattered to them, and on which they wanted to make a difference. I went to visit as they prepared to make a difference with their projects. The first team supported the community games tour, which was inspired by the Olympics. The team took over the publicity and promotion relating to that local project, which was run by Swindon borough council to encourage young people to try new sports. I visited the Meadowcroft fields in Upper Stratton, where the team encouraged young people to take part in dodgeball. We MPs are often asked to participate in things that might be mildly embarrassing, and that we would rather not do, but I was very keen to do this. I was excited to take part in dodgeball. “DodgeBall”, a comedy, is one of my favourite films. Unfortunately, a very professional five-year-old managed to take me down within about 10 seconds, so my experience of dodgeball has not led to much. The team cleverly split up into groups handling print media, social media, and leaflet design. A lot of young people got to participate in new sports that they would not otherwise have tried.

The second team supported the Swindon food bank—the Swindon branch of the food banks run by a national charity. They organised a fundraising concert featuring local young musicians and bands, and made fundraising appeals at local supermarkets. That was inspired by the fact that some of the group had received help in the past from the food bank; they were keen to help get their colleagues to put something back into that very good charity.

The third team supported the Swindon special care baby unit. They had organised a sponsored sleep-out, locked in the New college grounds. It meant spending

18 Sep 2012 : Column 877

24 hours sleeping in a cardboard box, with just a sandwich to eat. I asked whether any of them were going to smuggle in their mobile phone, so that they could text their parents to ask them to drop off a sneaky McDonald’s, but they assured me that they were committed to the cause. They raised a considerable amount of money.

The final team supported the women’s refuge by bag-packing in local supermarkets. They showed amazing maturity and confidence in negotiating with national retail giants to get permission to do that bag-packing. Again, one of the team members was living in the women’s refuge, and she was able to use that to get all the other students to understand how that organisation can help. The team raised valuable funds.

The hard work, dedication and enthusiasm that the young people showed for their projects, and for Swindon, is reflected in the reaction of those whom they helped. Lee Thompson, the project manager at the Swindon food bank, said:

“The first thing that struck me was their enthusiasm and their obvious enjoyment in participating in the scheme. They were certainly brimming with ideas of how to help Swindon Foodbank.

The students’ action has made a direct difference in their community. The money they raised enabled us to buy 157 kilos of food, enough to provide 196 meals or two days worth of food for the foodbank.

At a time when teenagers get bad publicity regarding their selfish attitude to society, the NCS students at New College changed my view and I hope that the scheme can be expanded as I feel it goes a long way to making well rounded citizens of the future.”

The scheme has benefited not just Swindon but the students. Lynn Wilkinson, who led the scheme at New college, said:

“The NCS program highlighted and enhanced the skills of a diverse range of young people with project planning and implementation, and…a little effort, determination and self belief. Each individual proved that they had the skills, determination and passion to help the communities of Swindon.”

The scheme has given the young people real-life experience, as well as teamwork and leadership skills—practical skills of real use to employers. I know that, because before I became an MP I had a business employing young people, and we would get deluged with CVs. The sorts of skills that we are talking about could set these young people apart from the hundreds of other people who might be applying for opportunities—opportunities that young people now have to fight to get. It was a real credit to the young people that they took advantage of the scheme. Richie Titcombe, a New college student, said:

“I intend to follow a career in public services, I have used the NCS programme to enhance my CV and the chances of gaining an insight into charity work or work for supporting services. All in all I worked with a great team with clear goals, directed by the NCS staff whose experience and dedication gave me a new outlook on supporting my community and how a little goes a long way.”

Crucially, not only did the students gain new skills, improve their CV and help their community but they enjoyed the experience. A study said that 92% of people who took part last year would recommend the scheme to friends, which certainly seems to be the case in Swindon. When I went to the graduation ceremony,

18 Sep 2012 : Column 878

students were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about their experience—they had gained the skills that I have discussed and made new friends—and, crucially, they did not intend it to be a one-off. Many of them wished to continue to help, either with the organisations with which they were involved or other organisations. They were all determined to encourage next year’s students to take advantage of the scheme. Their parents were incredibly proud of their children’s efforts. They were giving up their summer holidays, but they came along and beamed with pride at the graduation ceremony.

Francis Oakland, another New college student said:

“Great fun!! Taught me to stand on my feet and chased away a few fears, I would recommend it to all my friends just for the people you meet. You learn to get over petty frustrations and how to work and co-operate with others. A big thanks from me.”

It is vital that we continue to expand the scheme and invest in the skills of our young people, helping to prepare them for life beyond school. I welcome the funding tranche of £2 million that has been announced for next year’s scheme. However, Swindon college in particular is concerned that it has not been told when it can begin recruiting or the numbers for which it will be funded. It needs that information so that it can plan for next year, so I urge Ministers to provide all that information and let my colleges, which are desperate to lead on this, do so.

I am delighted that the students who graduated this year—only two did not complete the course, which is staggering, given that they gave up their free time—have already selected 10 Swindon ambassadors, who will go to many of the national events—I believe that they are coming to Downing street to fly the flag for Swindon—and enthuse next year’s intake.

As a final plea, I urge people to work with excellent organisations such as the Scouts, other volunteer organisations, sports clubs and so on, which are short of volunteers. There is a genuine opportunity for them to pitch to those students before they graduate to say, “You have made a real difference in your local community. We have programmes so that you can take that to the next level and continue to make a real difference.” This is a positive story, and we should all do everything that we can to encourage more young people to benefit from the scheme.

6.12 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who has enlightened us all and encouraged us to participate in volunteering, which is an important community activity.

I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House to his new position. I should like to use this debate to express my constituents’ concerns and to seek his advice and perhaps ministerial guidance on how to pursue the matters that they have raised. We have heard a lot about national campaigns today, but a big local campaign is under way in my constituency. I should like to draw to the Minister’s attention the way in which quality of life for my constituents—local residents in Tiptree, one of the largest villages in the country—has been undermined by the failure of our local authority to enforce planning conditions on the training round in Grange road, which is used by Colchester United football club.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 879

The facility is used outside the hours agreed in the original planning consent for the site. The noise, disruption and foul language—that is what really upsets my constituents—are distressing for families living near the ground. They are forced to keep their windows closed and stop their children playing in the garden because of the noise and the bad language shouted out in the training ground. Residents feel, in an era of localism, that they have been let down and ignored by the council, which should support them and enforce planning arrangements, rather than, as my constituents believe, turn a blind eye to their concerns. Residents are up in arms and dissatisfied with the replies that they have received from the council in response to their complaints. That is such an important issue for my constituents that I pledged to raise it in the House, so I would welcome some guidance from the Deputy Leader of the House on the matter.

Let me turn to business matters. We British were once famously dubbed a nation of shopkeepers. Having grown up in a family of shopkeepers, I know how important local shops and retailing are in providing local jobs in our constituencies, in towns and villages across the country. However, over the past decade, our high streets up and down the country have struggled to provide jobs and many of the essential services that over time we have taken for granted and to act effectively as the hubs in the communities that they once were. That is why I welcome the work that the Government have done in creating a new vision for the future of our town centres.

In particular, I would like to use this opportunity to praise everyone in Witham town who was involved in putting together the two bids for Portas pilots that we submitted. They failed, but irrespective of that, my constituents who put in the hours on the bid did a tremendous job and made an incredible case for Witham. Interestingly enough, in yesterday’s debate, I highlighted the fact that parts of Essex have consistently been overlooked for infrastructure investment in this area and many others. I should like to make a plea to the Government and urge them to support the Witham town application to become a town team partner and secure the new funds that are available. If nothing else, we in Witham look forward to working with the Government and taking on board many of the innovative ideas that have been proposed in the Portas schemes and the new vision that is being introduced for town centre management.

The House has heard me say on a number of occasions that 83% of local jobs in my constituency are in small and medium-sized enterprises—a high figure compared with the national average of 68%. The House has also heard me say before that Essex is very much the county of entrepreneurs, playing a vital part in the national economy, but I should like to restate my long-standing concerns about bank lending to small business.

Small businesses are at the heart of my constituency and our local jobs market. I should like again to highlight the case of the chocolate maker Amelia Rope, my inspirational constituent, who, despite her international order book and sales in some of the world’s most famous shops, including Liberty and Selfridges, has continuously struggled to secure bank lending to invest and grow her business. Interestingly, despite the fact that I took her to meet the Secretary of State for

18 Sep 2012 : Column 880

Business, Innovation and Skills back in 2010, she maintained in an interview with the

Evening Standard

about three weeks ago that nobody is looking after people such as her, which is something I hear from many local businesses in my constituency. I urge the Government to reaffirm their focus on making bank lending a priority, so that these incredible entrepreneurs, who are risk takers, can do everything that they can to stimulate private sector growth, create jobs and get our economy back on track.

Also on the theme of business, as the summer ends, many home owners will be worried about rising energy costs and heating their homes. The Government should be congratulated on the focus that they are giving to tackling fuel poverty and encouraging customers to switch suppliers and find cheaper tariffs. However, more effort is needed to help small businesses with their energy costs. The Association of Convenience Stores is running a campaign for fair energy contracts for local shops, to help small businesses to get a better deal from their energy companies. At the moment, 27% of small shops have been hit with rather large charges for backdated bills, often as a result of energy companies asking them to pay for up to six years of energy, owing to incorrect billing in the first place, even when it was the fault of the supplier. That is simply not fair; nor is it right or proper, and it can land businesses with bills totalling thousands of pounds and threats of disconnection. About 36% of small shops have also been overcharged— I speak from experience on this, because my parents’ last business fell into precisely that category—and 31% have reported above-inflation rises in their energy tariffs.

I urge the Government to look closely at that campaign, in the light of the fact that our shops and small businesses are struggling. We do not have enough small shops on our high streets or in our villages, and they have their own challenges with cash flow. The campaign could bring about change, and it would send out a tremendously positive message if the Government were to take action to help small firms to keep their energy bills down and, importantly, to be treated much more fairly by some of the energy companies.

I have spoken before about Essex roads, and the matter that I want to touch on next is a constant issue for my constituents and for people in Kent. It involves the Dartford crossing. Next month, the crossing’s toll charges will rise by a third from £1.50 to £2 for a car, and the charges for commercial vehicles will go up from £2 to £2.50 for a two-axle light goods vehicle and to up to £5 for heavy goods vehicles. A lot of my constituents use the M25 and the Dartford crossing, and many of them are complaining about the increases and raising the question of fairness. Thousands of motorists rely on that crossing every day.

There are two issues: one is the price of using the crossing—as I have said, the toll charges are going up—and the other is that we have a major problem with traffic flows and jams, as recent correspondence with the Highways Agency has confirmed. The crossing is a vital economic link for businesses in my constituency and across the south-east. Records from the Highways Agency show that the crossing’s performance is questionable, with journey time reliability in the year to May 2012 being just 57% for southbound journeys and 60% for northbound ones. That is below the 83.5% national average for journey time reliability on our motorways.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 881

People who use the crossing daily know of the paralysis, logjams and huge tailbacks. Over the past three years, there have been only six occasions northbound and one southbound on which the tolls have been suspended due to the severity of the traffic. It is a fact that traffic jams cause delays and have a cost to the economy. The economic costs of delays at the crossing are estimated by the Highways Agency to be £40 million, but the introduction of new technology to support free-flow charging arrangements is at least two years away. People in the south-east are paying more for a poor service.

I would welcome the Deputy Leader of the House’s thoughts on that matter, and I urge the Government to look again at the arrangements for charging at the crossing, as well as at their affect on the economy and at the costs that families and businesses are incurring. I look forward to his responding to the debate, and on behalf of my constituents I hope that the Government will take on board some of these issues in a positive way.

6.23 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): I should like to start by thanking Members for their congratulations. I had expected to have only one principal responsibility today—namely, to respond to the many contributions to this debate. I was not expecting to have to name a Member of the House, as I had to do earlier. I welcome this opportunity to respond to Members now, and I hope that I shall be able to do justice to all their contributions. I have been in the House for 15 years, but I confess that my knowledge still does not extend to the detail of all the points that have been raised. However, I welcome having been given this opportunity to learn about the Butterley spillway, about Jersey’s jurisdiction and about the very precise planning arrangements that apply in Northamptonshire. I shall attempt to answer as many points as I can.

The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) expressed concern about planning. Clearly, the Government’s concern at the moment is to ensure that the economy is growing, and planning has to play a part in that, albeit in the context of sustainable development. We should therefore be able to reassure her that the green belt is not under threat. She also expressed concern about powers being taken away from local authorities, but authorities need to be concerned only if they are not managing their planning applications effectively. Also, they will need to resource their planning departments accordingly, to ensure that planning applications are dealt with promptly. We want to see housing developments and commercial developments happening as soon as possible because of the jobs that will be created in that way and the extra revenue that will come to local authorities on the back of it. The hon. Lady raised some specific questions, to which I hope the Department for Communities and Local Government will want to respond in detail.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) focused on a constituency issue, involving IBM and Southwest One. The first thing to say is that a legal dispute is under way, so I apologise if I can refer in only general terms to the matters that were raised. The Government are clearly very much in favour

18 Sep 2012 : Column 882

of local authorities doing their own procurement. We encourage local authorities to consider pioneering procurement solutions with a view to delivering savings for local residents. Equally, of course, if things do not work in the expected way, we would expect local authorities to learn from any mistakes made as part of a procurement process. Within Government, we are doing a lot of work on procurement and on commissioning—looking at how local government can work better on commissioning and share information and knowledge.

The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), who is not in his place, raised the issue of GCSE results. This matter has been well trailed in recent days and weeks. The Secretary of State for Education responded to questions on that subject yesterday, and Education questions happened a fortnight ago. The starting point—the right hon. Gentleman should know, because he was the architect of it—is that there is an independent regulator, Ofqual, whose responsibility it is to look at these issues. One positive point for those concerned about this matter is that the Secretary of State explained in questions a couple of weeks ago that if Members felt that particular schools provided exceptional cases, those cases could and should be raised with Ofqual.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) spoke about nuisance calls, which I suspect we all experience on a daily basis. At home, we have been registered with a telephone preference service for at least 15 to 20 years, yet we still receive a high volume of calls inviting us—apparently because we had an accident—to pursue various matters. Action should be taken, and I know my hon. Friend is pursuing this vigorously. He has raised the matter with the Leader of the House previously and I know that the Information Commissioner has written to him on this important matter, which the Information Commissioner is actively pursuing. He and I and, I am sure, all other Members, would like to see some resolution so that we are not bombarded by these unsolicited calls at all times of day and night. My hon. Friend said that he would like to meet Ministers from both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Justice to discuss this matter further. I hope they have heard that call and will respond to it. Clearly, with a 10,000-signature petition, this is an issue that people are extensively worried about.

I turn now to the contribution of the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley). Speaking as a keen sportsman myself, I am very keen to achieve a real legacy from the Olympics, particularly a legacy for women in sport. The hon. Lady claimed credit—rightly or wrongly, I do not know—for securing a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport just a couple of days after her request to make it clear that the Government expect the media to continue to cover women’s sport in the way that they did during the Olympic and Paralympic games. The screams that came from our household were certainly just as loud for Jessica Ennis as they were for any of the male athletes such as Mo Farah and David Weir, who is Wallington’s golden boy—four times gold medal winner in the wheelchair events. I share a bit of the hon. Lady’s pain. She spoke of having had to respond to 400 speeches, and then corrected herself by saying that it had been only 40. I understand a little of what she felt.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 883

Barbara Keeley: That was a slip of the tongue, but I must say that it sometimes seems like that many. The Deputy Leader of the House has been fairly lucky today, as some Members did not make their contributions, but I hope that he does not find himself responding to that number in the future.

Tom Brake: I certainly hope not. It would be a very full House if I did.

The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) spoke of the need to encourage business growth. That is something to which the coalition Government are fully committed, and we have already seen some very positive results during the first two years of the coalition. Some 900 private sector jobs have been created, the deficit has been cut by a quarter, and inflation has halved since its peak. All that contributes to encouragement of business growth. We have also seen many successful investments, particularly in the automotive industry.

The hon. Gentleman referred to maternity and paternity rights. It is clearly the Government’s role to ensure that the balance is right. The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the impact on small businesses, but the Government are considering ways of strengthening families, and we need to take into account the role that maternity and paternity rights can play in that respect. We are also reviewing regulations, which will help businesses, and we would encourage people to take part in, for instance, the current consultation on pub regulations.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) referred to the tragic case of Luke Molnar, who died in the way that she described. Let me take this opportunity to express my condolences to his family. I know that the hon. Lady has been working very hard on the case. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the British Standards Institution are still actively exploring how the guidance could be made more widely available and how it might be improved. The hon. Lady made some very clear demands in her speech, which I am sure the Department has registered and to which I am sure it will wish to respond in detail.

The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) rightly raised the issue of mountain rescue. He described the exceptional volunteers who are involved in it, the roles and activities that they undertake on behalf of people in distress, and the risks that they confront. He tried to pre-empt one of the Government’s arguments in referring to the ease or otherwise of distinguishing between a mountain rescue vehicle and a privately owned vehicle. It is true that the Government believe that there are some problems in that regard, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, shortly after he raised questions about the matter on a previous occasion, a £200,000 fund was provided to cover the cost of procuring rescue equipment for teams in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also worth pointing out that charities benefit from a substantial contribution in gift aid which is worth £1 billion a year to them. However, the hon. Gentleman was a passionate advocate of the tax changes that he was seeking. I am sure that the Department for Transport and the Treasury heard the points that he made, and they may wish to respond.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about employment and support allowance and disability living allowance, of which all Members probably

18 Sep 2012 : Column 884

have some knowledge as a result of their casework. The hon. Gentleman may wish to pursue individual cases further, but I can tell him that the Government have moved in a positive direction and have been more generous in relation to cancer patients’ access to the ESA support group. The Government have looked at the work capability assessment and the Harrington proposals, and have made improvements. The Government are not deaf to the issues that have been raised. We entirely agree that we must do the right thing by the most vulnerable in society. That is precisely what we are doing, but there will always be individual cases that require further scrutiny.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) raised the subject of Sunday trading and sought some firm guarantees from me and the Government. As she will know, a permanent relaxation of the Sunday trading laws was considered and rejected as part of the Government’s recent red tape challenge in June 2011. A review is rightly under way of the impact of the temporary suspension for the Olympics and Paralympics. If the Government decide on a permanent relaxation of the restrictions, new legislation would be needed and Parliament would have its say on that. My hon. Friend offered some fairly convincing evidence from the British Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores, however, showing that the impact on their business had been negative, so this might not, in fact, be a good way to increase trade after all. I agree with her, too, in that I would never say that I wish I had spent more time shopping.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) raised the issue of Gary McKinnon and his family. There is always a risk for Members that past comments made in this place will catch up with us, and that was the case for me in respect of my hon. Friend’s opening remarks. It is, perhaps, safest for me to say that my hon. Friend has put a lot of strength and passion into his campaign, and he is a very articulate advocate for the McKinnon case. The sole issue for the Home Secretary to consider, however, is whether extradition would breach Mr McKinnon’s human rights. The courts have allowed time for the Home Secretary’s medical experts to consider the new representations made by Mr McKinnon’s representatives. I assume that there will be an announcement on that on or around 16 October, and it may well be appropriate for us to hear about that in the House.

Mr Burrowes: Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why we have not had a decision yet, or at least get an answer to that question from the relevant Department? I also ask for an assurance that the timetable for a decision will not be constrained by any parliamentary or party conference timetable.

Tom Brake: As my hon. Friend said, other issues have had to be addressed. The Olympics and Paralympics are now over, but there are other matters to be considered, too. I hope that he will get some satisfaction on this question very soon, but it would not be appropriate for me to specify a time. This issue has been on the Government’s radar for many years, however, and we all want a swift resolution, especially for Mr McKinnon and his family.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 885

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) talked about Butterley spillway. As I said, I would be pleased to know more about this issue, and the campaign group that has been established and put that grand staircase on the map. He outlined the actions that Yorkshire Water is taking in relation to the different options it is considering. He made some specific requests and it would be appropriate for the relevant Department to respond to those. Such requests included asking for full transparency of all documents. He also asked questions about whether or not the structure will remain listed, and they need a response.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has a reputation for campaigning on issues associated with family courts. He probably wanted to put on the record, and he certainly effectively did so, what he had to say about Jersey and its particular case. He rightly said that he bounces up and down to raise this issue frequently—

John Hemming rose

Tom Brake: I suspect, from his posture, that he is about to do so again.

John Hemming: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new role, which gives him the challenge of answering this question: I understand from people I have spoken to after I made my speech that there have been protests today outside the British embassy in Bratislava about malpractice in the English family courts, so does he feel that it might perhaps be in the Government’s interest to drop their family justice review and support my Family Justice (Transparency, Accountability and Cost of Living) Bill?

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It would certainly be appropriate for the Government to respond to his suggestion, but it would also be totally inappropriate for me to agree to it at this time. He also suggested that a Committee should be set up to consider cover-ups. Again, I am not sure which Department would deal with those, but I am sure that it has noted that request.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) talked about localism. Clearly there is total agreement in the coalition on some issues, and the need to promote localism is definitely one of them. Both parties identified the issue as something we wanted to address, given that the UK has become one of the most centralised countries in the western world. When raising the issue of wind farms, she highlighted the fact that there may be a conflict between localism, which we want to prioritise, and different agendas to which the Government are equally committed in ensuring that we are the greenest Government ever. She posed a number of questions that would be best answered by the Department for Communities and Local Government in writing. I am thinking, in particular, of the issues she raised about where the priorities lie between strategic plans, regional plans and neighbourhood plans, and what opportunities there are for local residents to have an input in that process and change the outcome.

18 Sep 2012 : Column 886

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is no longer in his place, has been a consistent campaigner on violent video games. He will be aware that a new statutory system was introduced on 30 July, which will mean that a person who sells a game rated 12-plus to someone below that age will have committed a criminal offence and could be subject to a fine of £5,000. He made a point about prosecutions, and he may need a response about how many prosecutions there have been in respect of that subject. In an intervention, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) rightly raised the role of parents in this matter, and I should put on the record the fact that the “Control. Collaborate. Create.” campaign has been launched. It includes the re-launch of the askaboutgames.com website, which is a resource to help parents better to understand what games are and whether they are appropriate for a given age group. The right hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the Byron review and what has been implemented that might require a detailed response. Some aspects have been implemented, and the changes to the video games classification system followed its recommendations. A further response detailing the date for implementation of other aspects, if known, might also be helpful.

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) spoke about the Gloucester City Homes ALMO, which he described in glowing terms. I am sure that it is as effective as mine, the Sutton Housing Partnership. He quite rightly called for it to be able to access capital to ensure a decent capital investment programme to allow the affordable homes needed in his city to be built. We would all support that, in terms both of providing additional homes—there are few parts of the country where there is no pressure on affordable homes—and of creating the jobs that come with the building programme.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) spoke about air passenger duty, and I might not be able to satisfy him entirely. I agree that aviation is vital to the UK economy, but the Government undertook an extensive consultation on air passenger duty last year. We received 500 responses and we have published our response, including a summary of the views received. At this point, the Government have no plans to commission further research into the impact of air passenger duty, and although he is right that there has been a substantial increase of 8%, the increases for 2013-14 will be in line with RPI. If air passenger duty is cut as he suggests, its contribution to the Government’s deficit reduction programme will have to be compensated for somewhere else. He mentioned that people power has been very effective in the campaign and I am sure that not a single Member of Parliament or Minister is unaware of the campaign, given the volume of the representations that we receive.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who explained that he could not stay to hear the wind-ups, rightly plugged his desire to see through-trains to King’s Cross as part of the franchising process, which has been effectively put on the record.