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3.57 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am aware of the time constraints, so I shall try to restrict my remarks to 10 minutes. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Thank you. In case I forget at the end, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all the hon. Members who have managed to endure the debate to the very end, a happy Christmas.

I shall raise two points briefly and two others in slightly more detail. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), as I have a redundancy problem with a well-known manufacturer in my constituency--Lister-Petter, the last independent diesel engine manufacturer in the country. It is a depressing scenario, but I have worked with others to achieve something of a recovery. Rather than lose all the jobs, we have managed to salvage 400 or so, but there are still 270 redundancies. That has brought it home to me how hard the redundancy process is, and what should be done to ensure that all workers who go through that awful process are treated in the best way possible.

We have managed to put together a taskforce, and it is pleasing that the south-west regional development agency has become fully involved, and has given money to help the company and to buy the site. There ought to be manufacturing on that site, and if the Department of Trade and Industry comes up trumps in the next few days, we hope to pull together what has been a desperate situation. I hope that there will be a silver lining in the end.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire will share my concern that we spend a lot of time talking about help for agriculture--I spend much time defending farmers--but only a disproportionately small amount of time working on an industrial policy, with manufacturing at the forefront. We all know about the problems with the pound and the long-term under-investment in that sector, but that is no excuse for not trying to come up with a coherent strategy. We as a Government must bear some responsibility, although I hope that we shall try to do much more.

That idea is linked to my second point, which is about the need for a coherent energy policy. Again, the Government have been somewhat slow in that regard, but I pay due respect to them for beginning to produce the makings of what may be not only the right approach, but an approach that takes into account the producer, the consumer and the environment. It is in that context that we set so much store by renewables.

I must declare an interest, in that my biggest local employer is Berkeley, acting for British Nuclear Fuels. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary "come out" last Friday on "Any Questions" in support of nuclear power. I do not think it will be long before we must bite the bullet, and realise that a policy for effective energy production in future must involve a raft of different means. One will be nuclear energy; another will be renewables. There may also be a declining role for fossil fuels.

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This week the Government responded to public examination of the south-west regional planning proposals made at a policy conference held last year, and also earlier this year. Such documents are always fairly opaque: it is necessary to read between the lines. At this point I must declare another interest, as a member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I think we are disappointed that the housing provision figures were not entirely satisfactory, but the document also draws attention to some good signs. For instance, up to 50 per cent. of the increase in the amount of building is expected to extend to brownfield sites.

Such development is much more difficult in the south-west, because we have not the same number of such sites as areas elsewhere in the country, but a promising start has been made. Moreover, it has at long last been recognised that in my county of Gloucestershire, the core of any future development must involve the Gloucester- Cheltenham area. I do not want to be seen as dumping on my colleagues in the area, but I must say that, for all sorts of reasons--which have lain below the surface while both county and districts have reached their different planning policies--there has been a studious failure to realise the obvious, which is that where there is already a built-up area, it is necessary to start there and work outwards.

I personally favour a further dispersal of houses around the area concerned, rather than a concentration. However, I feel strongly that there should be a link with jobs and transport, and that planning should be more effective than it has been. Everyone seems to feel that it is now less about people than about developers, and less about doing what people want, than about imposing things on them, to a degree.

The Government should do something about that. They have made many good moves in initiating the monitoring of planning and design and ensuring the right levels of provision, but we must keep moving away from "predict and provide". Numbers tend to determine outcomes, which should be borne in mind by those who try to decide the most satisfactory way in which to operate the planning process. Surely that process is about building homes that people want, rather than homes that they apparently do not want, sucking in those who live elsewhere and encouraging them to commute many miles. We must grasp the nettle, and make changes for the better.

I want to spend slightly longer on my last point, although I shall no doubt be told if I go on too long. It relates directly to what appears to have been "the" debate of the end of the year: the debate on policing and law and order.

I shall make no particular comments about areas other than my own--I cannot speak from experience about what is happening in London, for instance--but I take a great interest in policing, and law and order, in my area. I have watched what has happened to police numbers, and it is very pleasing to see that in Gloucestershire, we are recruiting and beginning to put the people back on the establishment. Nevertheless, in the short term, numbers have decreased.

In the past few days--perhaps in response to the intervention of the Leader of the Opposition--some rather interesting posters have appeared, saying,

Although I am not sure what the posters mean to the general public, I know that it would have been helpful if those who put them up had checked the planning

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regulations. Enforcement action is being taken against the local Conservative party, which seems to have broken those regulations. In view of the police time that it takes to deal with such matters, perhaps those party members could themselves try harder to maintain law and order.

Policing is a real issue. When one goes out on patrol with police, as I do regularly, one sees policing in the raw, and what needs to be done not only to provide the right number of police, but to build their morale and ensure that they have all the right equipment.

The last point with which I shall leave my hon. Friend the Minister perhaps explains why I become so disdainful of attacks on the Government about policing. Of course there is a problem with budgets and a need for more resources. My own police authority has needed a sizeable increase in its precept. Consequently, last year, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and I visited the Home Office to explain why a rural sparsity factor was necessary. Ministers not only listened, but they introduced a rural sparsity factor in the settlement, which enabled us to recruit more police officers.

The underlying problem, however, has remained the same for many years. We have to deal with a serious problem created by the previous Government, who failed to deal with the consequences of police retirement policies. Police budgets have been heavily skewed by retirement costs. In Gloucestershire, about 19 per cent. of the police budget is immediately top-sliced to pay for retirement. Indeed, I should broaden that point to address an issue about which I get quite wound up--early retirement.

I believe that early retirement is as big a scandal as the way in which the state earnings-related pension scheme was handled, and the pensions mis-selling scandal. The early retirement scandal will haunt us for generations. Although it was a nice idea that people could be bought out of their jobs and go early--indeed, people fairly close to me did go early, from teaching, social work and the police--it was a bit foolhardy to expect that 10 years after they retired, they would disappear off the face of the earth. Although it is good that we now have a greater life expectancy, the increase in life expectancy has had a ratcheting effect on pensions, continually increasing pension costs.

Therefore, I take some of the attacks on the Government over policing with a pinch of salt. The matters that I have outlined are the real story, and the real reason why our police budgets are insufficient. Nevertheless, it is up to the Government to deal with that legacy. We have to try to deal with it. My comments are not an attack on police personnel, who make big contributions into an unfunded scheme. The message has to be spread abroad that that legacy is why police budgets are often depleted.

4.8 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I wish to raise various issues and ask various questions before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, and it would be a wonderful Christmas present for residents in Southend, West if the Minister would gee up Departments to give us straight answers to them.

I am delighted for Wolverhampton, Inverness, and Brighton and Hove, but I am very disappointed that Southend has not been declared a city. It deserves to

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become a city, and I hope that that will happen. I know that Her Majesty the Queen enjoyed Southend when she visited us the year before last.

We have a real problem with staffing at Southend hospital. The problem is not unique to Southend, but is similar across the country. It is no good the Government saying that the problem is all down to the Conservative Government. A press release from the Royal College of Nursing states that

In the past few days, I had cause to visit Southend hospital. I witnessed magnificent staff struggling under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. That is especially true of staff in the intensive care unit, who, if they were working about eight miles nearer to London, would get more money for the same, very specialised work. All the beds are occupied, and there is a crisis in Southend. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, who will wind up the debate, will have a word with the Secretary of State for Health to see if he can do anything to help. The present initiatives are a disaster.

Postal services are also a problem. Mail delivery in the area has been terrible. It is no good writing letters, as they take three weeks to arrive. The whole thing is a shambles. I have a letter here from the Essex chamber of commerce which states:

Recently, union and then management representatives came to the House to see me. Sorting operations were moved from Southend to Chelmsford and then to Romford. The bottom line is that people are not getting their letters as they used to. Many people, especially elderly people, depend on the service.

The unions put the problem down to the European Union working time directive, and management put it down to new practices. The Minister for Competitiveness used to work for the postal union, and has an inside track. The Royal Mail does not offer the service that it used to. It would be another wonderful present for my constituents if he could sort out the problem.

Lady Diana Brittan, the chairman of the National Lottery Charities Board, recently visited Southend and said that the town's

I hope that Southend will hold an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall entitled, "I do like to be beside the Seaside". However, Lady Diana had to tell local residents that there was a problem with legislation when it came to applying for grants from the board. For example, she said that she would have to disappoint people about projects such as installing a lift in the local naval and military club. It is not that the board does not want to help local charities, but that the legislation needs to be examined. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will have a word with his relevant colleague.

The Consumers Association has told me that the lack of a consumers Bill in the Queen's Speech was a gaping absence. One had been promised, to reform the Fair

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Trading Act 1973, but it did not materialise, and neither did legislation to ban mortgage insurance tie-ins. None the less, I want to put in some special pleading.

The Select Committee on Health visited Cuba a few weeks ago. We flew with British Airways, which was privatised under Lord King and which I always considered to be first class. I was sceptical about complaints about its service. However, a number of Select Committee members ate the food on offer, and became ill. I was one of them.

There is no time to go through all the correspondence between the British Airways chairman, Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, and myself, but the company's response was totally unsatisfactory. It is not good enough for a Member of the other place to write to a Member of Parliament saying that we must have had the germs before the trip, that the food had been cooked at 72 degrees, and all the other codswallop that he expects us to believe. I am sure that such problems would be addressed if the Government were to introduce a consumers Bill.

Earlier in the year, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), visited Southend to inspect the circumstances surrounding asylum seekers. It was a wonderful visit, and all sorts of assurances were given. We were very pleased. However, all that has fallen apart.

I am advised by the deputy mayor of Southend that apparently the dispersal programme has not been disbanded, but it has been abandoned, because the Government are ceasing to fund it. The regional assembly has agreed to keep it going without funding until April--a fat lot of good--in the hope that the Government will change their mind. In April, there were 470 known asylum seekers in Southend, and an indeterminate number of unknown ones. The known figure is now 619. The London boroughs are sending many people to Southend without the necessary resources, and now the Government, having said that they would help us, have washed their hands of the problem.

I believe that the Government's decision to award contracts directly to private landlords is a negation of their duty to the residents of the receiving towns. It is outrageous that they should bypass the local authorities who have the responsibility of care. I hope that the Minister will sort that out.

The decriminalisation of parking has been welcomed by some local residents and not others. A number of people in Southend are concerned that the maximum penalty charge notice is too low. In London the maximum is £60, but outside London it is £40. Moving to a decriminalised system will be costly, and a higher penalty charge may make the transition easier financially. Other concerns come from traffic wardens who are worried that they will lose flexibility if they become council parking attendants.

We all know that traffic wardens are not that popular with the public. I visited some of them recently and was deeply moved by all the activities, other than the issuing of tickets, in which they are involved. They deal with tax disc offences and abandoned and stolen vehicles. They carry out crowd and traffic control, and represent the police force. There is no doubt that we have fewer police than ever before in Essex, and in Southend in particular, and these changes will mean that we lose the good will of the traffic wardens. That simply is not good enough.

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I was less than happy with the way in which the serious and important subject of cloning was dealt with by the House on Tuesday. I wonder whether right hon. and hon. Members are aware that a group of cross-party peers, together with a cardinal archbishop, an archbishop, an imam and a rabbi, wrote to the Prime Minister requesting a meeting. Four times they wrote to the Prime Minister, and he never agreed to a meeting. The Prime Minister said not so long ago that he was contrite, and willing to listen. Why, then, was he not prepared to listen on an issue that the whole House agrees is of huge importance?

A pearl is formed when a piece of grit gets into the oyster. The Prime Minister might not agree with what the religious leaders were going to say to him, but he should at least have been prepared to listen. If we do not let the grit in, we will never get the pearl out.

My final point is about animals. I hope that people will think carefully about purchasing pets this Christmas. Every year, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other bodies have to cope with abandoned pets. If any Members are thinking of acquiring a dog, they could do no better than contact Miss Pamela Townsend of the Willow Tree sanctuary in Great Yeldham, or Mrs. Mary Scully of the Enfield dog rescue centre. They have any number of rescued dogs and would be delighted if right hon. and hon. Members gave those dogs a good home. The Amess household has a black labrador, and we are seriously considering having a rescued dog over the Christmas period and beyond.

I hope that all animals, all human beings and all those who work in the House will have a very happy Christmas.

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