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3.11 pm

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West): I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the importance of urban forestry in our towns and cities, and the threat that it faces. I originally raised the issue in a similar debate in March 1999. At the time, a national newspaper described Wolverhampton as one of the country's greenest and cleanest cities. It was not quite right, because at that time Wolverhampton was still a town--albeit a town that was enthusiastically bidding for city status. As the House knows, earlier this week we received the good news that it is to become one of the three millennium cities. When I left Wolverhampton on Monday morning to catch the train here, I left some very happy people behind. The celebrations are already under way.

I want to put it on the record that we are delighted that that special distinction has been conferred on the town. We take the matter seriously and it is a boost to the town's confidence. However, a slight shadow has been cast over the celebrations. Although the debates on it are not meant to be partisan, I was a little disappointed to read the front page of The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday morning which reported an Opposition Front Bencher as making churlish remarks about the award of city status. We must bear it in mind that the Queen ultimately grants the distinction.

On reading other papers, I discovered that some members of the media had decided that the award was another excuse to air unfounded prejudices about Wolverhampton. The Times and The Daily Telegraph contained the most amazing amount of breath-taking drivel about Wolverhampton that I had ever read. It was based on pure ignorance of the town, or city as it now is, and its past achievements. I have one thing to say to those critics: visit Wolverhampton, stay for a while, accept the extremely warm welcome that will be given by Wulfrunians and take the time to find out what it has achieved in its 1,000 year history, because for more than 1,000 years it has contributed significantly to this country's economic, social and cultural life. If any town deserves city status, it is Wolverhampton.

If the critics of the new city take time to discover what Wolverhampton is really like, I guarantee that they will be pleasantly surprised because all strangers invariably leave

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saying that it is much better and nicer than they thought it would be. Having got that off my chest, I shall return to the substance of my speech.

When I spoke in March 1999, I highlighted the importance of urban woodland, in particular, mature street trees, to our towns and cities. In addition to making places look more pleasant, trees also benefit areas by improving air quality, reducing the risk of flooding, which is very relevant these days, and increasing biodiversity. I am not the only Member of the House who believes that. In June this year, I tabled an early-day motion that was signed by 173 Back Benchers from all main parties.

The early-day motion called on the Government to ensure the protection and promotion of urban trees and woodlands by developing a national strategy. We expected the Government to set out their polices in the urban White Paper, which was published last month. It refers to the importance of looking after the urban environment, to improving air quality, to coping with climate change and to improving the quality of life in our towns and cities by promoting wildlife and environmental initiatives. To sum up, it promotes environmentally sustainable towns and cities. However, to do that, the relevant Department--the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--will have to produce a coherent and co-ordinated urban forestry strategy, and it does not have one.

The headquarters of the National Urban Forestry Unit is in Wolverhampton. Its staff are experts in developing urban forestry strategy. The unit has been operating for six years and receives considerable funding from the Department to carry out its work. That funding ceases in March next year and negotiations have been under way to secure future funding so that it can continue its good work and, hopefully, help the Department to formulate the strategy that it needs.

The Department has admitted many times that the work of the unit is valuable and it is acknowledged as extremely effective. Despite that, a press release nearly two weeks ago said that the Department would probably not provide the unit with any more funding from the end of March next year. I understand that negotiations might be under way or will resume in the new year, and I hope that the Department can be persuaded to rethink its decision. It will be a pity if it does not.

Several environmental organisations "plant trees", as an official of the Department put it, including Groundwork, the Tree Council and the Forestry Commission, but they are unique and do different jobs. It is a mistake to think that the work of the National Urban Forestry Unit can automatically be taken on by another organisation.

Powerful lobbying has taken place behind the scenes. The unit has conducted schemes in at least 50 other constituencies. I hope that negotiations will continue. If they do not, and the unit's future is threatened, I am not convinced that the Department will be able to produce the coherent strategy that it needs to take urban forestry seriously.

I want to send the message to the Department that it should keep on talking to the National Urban Forestry Unit. An important issue is at stake. The urban White Paper recognises that we need to pay much more attention to urban forestry. Although I will retire from the House at the

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general election, I must remind Ministers that I have several months left to table questions and early-day motions, and to keep a close eye on what Ministers are doing.

I think that I have used up my allotted time. I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House a merry Christmas and a happy holiday. This year, we in Wolverhampton will enjoy very happy and very special new year celebrations.

3.19 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) referred to our late colleague, predecessor to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones). I admire Wolverhampton and I am glad for its people in their rejoicing at its becoming at city. I had not realised that the hon. Lady was to retire; I shall be doing the same myself and I hope that her retirement is as pleasurable as I hope mine will be. I also hope that, in yet another place from the one down the Corridor, the hon. Lady's predecessor is smiling at the subjects that she feels should delay our rising for Christmas.

It is in the nature of recess Adjournment debates that the subjects most likely to be on our minds are those that might be called real-time stuff--current issues that have been running strongly in the weeks before we rise and in relation to which Parliament's temporary pause might work against our scrutiny of the Executive. Examples that I might have cited in arguments to delay our recess are the letting of the new lottery contract and the state of the Metropolitan police.

To his credit, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was present in the Chamber at 1.45 am on Tuesday 19 December, when we debated two national lottery orders. However, he has gone to ground since Lord Burns announced his commission's decision on the letting of the new lottery contract later that day. Even the Delphic oracle, that most ambiguous mistress, would have agreed that there were questions to be put to the Secretary of State about the process and its outcome, including, as I understand it, questions asked by Sir Richard Branson himself. However, at business questions today, in response to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) speaking for the Liberal Democrats, the Leader of the House opined implicitly that her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must be allowed to hibernate after his labours in the small hours of Tuesday, and that urgency in dealing with the matter would not be appropriate in the aftermath of a process that had already taken 12 months.

The issues relating to the Metropolitan police are more urgent, whatever the Government have chosen to say about the interest shown in them by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. In the recent Commons debate on policing in London, in which I suspect the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) also participated, I alluded to concern about police numbers in London being a constant refrain at every recent meeting I had attended in my constituency, whether of amenities societies, residents' associations, police-community consultative groups or sector working parties. The issue is not one that has suddenly surprised the Government, but, as is so often the case with the current Home Office Ministers, their answer has been simply to blame their predecessors.

The most dramatic consequence of the initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was the markedly more conciliatory tone

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adopted by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), on the "Today" programme this morning. In addition, the length of the Prime Minister's final answer to my right hon. Friend yesterday clearly indicated that he did not have a killer fact with which to end the exchange--it appeared that the right hon. Gentleman did not know how or where to stop. The issue will not go away during the Christmas recess, but perhaps that which we have so far received is all that the Government can generate at present.

A matter on which I shall dwell briefly is one to which I referred in business questions last week as

I asked why the Secretary of State for Defence, after being absent from the Queen's Speech defence debate, was not to come to the House before it rose to clarify those ambiguities. The Leader of the House explained that confusion existed only in the minds of Conservative Members. Leaving aside the philosophical question of how anyone knows what goes on--or does not go on--in the mind of another, at business questions today I asked the Leader of the House whether her answer last week was a subjective remark of her own, or an objective remark on behalf of the Government. She replied that it was the former. Therefore, the possibility must exist that there are ambiguities in current European defence matters that extend beyond the minds of Conservatives. However, it is clear that the Government perceive no obligation to address those ambiguities. Given what they are committing us to, the matter seems sufficiently important to delay the House rising for Christmas.

I centre my remarks on a remark that the Prime Minister made in his statement after the Nice European Council. In the context of an EU-led operation to which he had just alluded, he said:

Later, in response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Prime Minister said:

adding that--

When, last month, the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement on European defence co-operation, he made no reference to planning, save to say:

In advance of the Nice European Council, President Chirac had said--I quote in English:

That message was reiterated in a statement from the Quai d'Orsay of 15 December, reprinted by Associated Press, which stated that leaving all planning to SHAPE would

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leave it under US control. After Nice, on 13 December, Agence France Presse reported that EU leaders had called for "guaranteed permanent access" to NATO planning and had maintained that

On the same day, Associated Press reported Mr. Cohen, the United States Defence Secretary, as saying:

The Government may take the view that they are not responsible for what President Chirac says, but there is little doubt elsewhere that the French Government have been the main motor in the European defence initiative. The Government cannot dismiss the draft presidency report on the European security and defence policy, especially annexe 7 to the presidency conclusions, which treats on consultation and co-operation between the European force and the NATO alliance. In particular, I cite a quotation from page 9 of the draft presidency report. It reads:

I emphasise could--

Leaving aside the discretionary nature of the second statement that I have quoted, it has necessarily to carry the implication that the European defence force will have a military planning capacity of its own.

I have gone back to the ipsissima verba that underlie the issue. The various statements that I have quoted cannot be squared as being mutually consistent with one another, except in an ambiguous and confusing manner which is the precise antithesis of successful military operations.

One of my retired constituents appears as an expert witness before Select Committees on transport issues. In retirement, he devotes much of his time to military history, including visits to a series of scenes of military engagements abroad. I asked him once how he chose his campaigns. "Cock-ups", he said. I can hope only that the European rapid reaction force will not elicit his attention in future.

A week ago, the Leader of the House resisted my request that the Secretary of State for Defence should come to the House this week to clarify these issues. The right hon. Lady was confident, as the deputy Leader of the House knows, that no confusion or ambiguity existed in the mind of the Government. I am only sorry that she is not present now to resolve my anxieties. By definition, from her own lips, she believes there to be no confusion.

Of course, her confidence has been such, extending to the entire Government, that I know in advance that the deputy Leader of the House will be able to set my anxieties at rest and enable me to enjoy the Christmas recess without these issues to worry about. However, he will not be able to do that with soft and soothing words, which would sharpen my anxieties. I am looking forward to resolution of the contradictions that the statements that I have quoted engender by a robust and rigorous textual analysis and a detailed explanation of how the European force's military planning will be carried out.

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