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6.27 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, I wish to raise a number of quick points.

The first is about housing stock transfer. The Labour Government encouraged Southend to run a ballot on its 7,000 properties, and that ballot took place a week ago. Some 68 per cent. of those eligible voted and 49.2 per cent. voted for and 50.8 per cent. voted against. When the ballot was set up, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party controlled the council and it seems that certain elements have undermined the ballot by talking about fat cats and the rest of it. Unfortunately, the result of the ballot has left Southend council tax payers in a difficult position. People will be made redundant and the £59 million that was available to refurbish the housing stock appears to have gone by the by.

My second point is about the exclusion of pupils from schools. It is extraordinary that the Government set targets for the number of youngsters who are excluded from school without having set up any alternatives as to how we educate those young people. The most shocking aspect concerns circular 10/99. As a result of the circular, young people can bring drugs to schools. The headmaster might expel them but, if the young children have not sold the drugs, but just passed them on, parents can appeal against the expulsion and the youngsters can be reinstated. I will not name names, but two pupils in two different schools have been reinstated, which has completely undermined the authority of the headmasters involved. The leader of the secondary heads union in Essex recently wrote to hon. Members who represent that county's constituencies about the shortage of teachers and the pressures that they are under. Is it any wonder when one considers the undermining effect of circular 10/99?

On the police issue, time after time, Southend puts in bids for closed circuit television which are not approved because they are not of good enough quality. I want to know what we have to do to produce an acceptable bid. The chief constable tells me, "It doesn't matter, David, that there aren't as many police as there used to be since we have had this Labour Government because we've got the new technology to try and catch the criminals."

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However, for whatever reason, we have not been successful in those bids. The latest wheeze is that police officer numbers are being increased by Home Office recommendations which say that if no places are available at training colleges, officers will work out their five weeks at police stations. That will happen in Southend and they are included in police numbers.

As for the Palace theatre in Southend, I was delighted when it reopened because it is marvellous. But here we go again--our request for a grant was turned down. For some reason, the Eastern arts board does not understand the quality of the wonderful productions that take place there.

Finally, on transport, there have been many complaints about the local Arriva bus services, with which there are problems. The company has cut services and increased prices, and the low-rise buses are no longer available. I am also concerned about the c2c rail service. When the Conservative Government decided to reorganise British Rail, I was delighted that the Fenchurch Street service was going to have new rolling stock. Unfortunately, under the Labour Government new rolling stock has been delivered which cannot be used. I hope that Ministers will do something about transport and other problems in Southend because we do not recognise the rosy picture painted by the hon. Member for Telford (Mr. Grocott).

6.32 pm

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I want briefly to acknowledge the important contribution that the Government have made to improving not only the levels of employment in this country, but the quality of the terms and conditions of service. I also want to mention an issue that I hope the Labour Government will tackle after the next election.

Bristol, West has never registered as a deprived constituency, but unemployment has been a significant factor for many years in some areas. During the past four years, unemployment has fallen by 45 per cent. More importantly, thanks to the new deal, the number of 18 to 24-year-olds who claim benefit for more than six months has fallen by 87 per cent. It is good to know that in my constituency and throughout the country, more young adults are beginning to achieve. Doors are opening for them when previously they had been slammed shut and they are beginning to direct their own lives. Those successes are a huge plus for this Labour Government.

The Government's achievements, however, are about much more than the unemployment level. They have introduced the national minimum wage. That especially affects women and has been increased to £4.10. They have also introduced four weeks' paid holiday, equal rights that are proportionate for part-time workers, an extension of maternity leave to 18 weeks and parental leave of three months within the first five years of parenthood. In addition, they have restored trade union rights--especially at GCHQ--if there are 21 or more staff and the majority wish it. The much tougher approach to health and safety has reduced accidents at work.

The Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 and the commission have been added to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equal Pay Acts and the Race Relations Acts. "Yes," we might say, "that is huge step forward.

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What more do we want?" People come to my constituency surgeries who are concerned, not just about fairness at work, but dignity at work. If hon. Members think they have heard that phrase before, they are right. Legislation was originally introduced in the House of Lords in December 1996 by Lord Monkswell to tackle the extremely important issue of bullying at work which, unfortunately, we have been unable to address in this Parliament.

Legislation on fairness goes a long way, but people are still coming to my surgery who have been sidelined and overruled. Inexplicably, their contracts have not been renewed, they have been passed over for promotion and, puzzlingly, they have been proposed for redundancy. That is not just a bad day at the office; people's careers have been stunted, their personal lives turned upside down and, worse, they have suffered prolonged periods of physical and mental illness. Bullying, which we often associate only with school, is still, sadly, prevalent in the workplace. The trade unions were stringent in taking that up years ago; between 14 and 53 per cent. of people interviewed recognised that they had been bullied. The Trades Union Congress launched a campaign in October 1998; in 1995, the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union contacted 140,000 people in a survey and found that 30 per cent. of those interviewed considered bullying to be a significant problem. I want to pay special tribute to Chris Ball, an MSF officer, for the work that he has done, and continues to do, in promoting that area among his members and the wider work force.

The Dignity at Work Bill was introduced and completed its passage through the House of Lords. It was introduced in the House of Commons by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) then, sadly, received no further attention. However, amendments were tabled in Committee, and the measure provides the basis for an important new Bill. Following amendment in the Lords and in Committee, the Dignity at Work Bill stated that employees had their right to dignity at work breached if they experienced


That right was also breached if punishment was

or if

were inflicted without reasonable justification.

I am sure that my constituents welcome the work that the Government have already done but, certainly on the basis of casework that I am dealing with in my surgery, they look to the next Labour Government to introduce a dignity at work Bill.

6.38 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): As is traditional, the majority of Members who have contributed to today's debate have raised a wide variety of matters to do with their constituencies. Some contributions have concerned genuine life-and-death matters, and the House listened with concern to individual cases with which Members are dealing. Those cases could

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not have been heard by a more responsive member of the Government, and I know that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will certainly follow them through.

During the Christmas Adjournment debate, I recall awarding my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) the prize for the most innovative contribution. He packed in a lot today, and I am at a loss to understand why his constituency--which, I am sure, is most deserving--fails to attract bids for closed circuit television, let alone its excellent theatre. I can only urge him to keep trying; I am sure that he can think of something.

The hon. Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), for Telford (Mr. Grocott), for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) all made speeches that related to their constituencies.

The speech of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) was fascinating, particularly as it included visual aids. I am reminded of the poem by my namesake about the problem with rats. It occurred to me that if the hon. Lady arranged for them to be rounded up and brought here, they might make some friends. [Interruption.] I was thinking of Portcullis House and not of Members on these Benches.

The situation that the hon. Lady described sounds terrible. I was tempted to suggest that the rats should be trapped, but I realised that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who has left to participate in his wedding anniversary celebrations, might not have approved. None the less, the hon. Lady's speech was very interesting. She takes the prize this time for the most innovative contribution to our debate.

The right hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) also raised a local matter. Although I am sure that it was not his swan-song in this Chamber, we realise that time is running out and that perhaps we shall not be able to hear him speak all that frequently in future. We wish him well with his constituency problem and in his future elsewhere.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) also raised very important issues; he always takes the opportunity of these debates to raise matters of great importance. The emergency that he described was of great concern. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will have listened very carefully to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) raised the question of masts and went on to address planning matters. I have total sympathy with him on the latter point, as I have a similar problem in my constituency with excessive housebuilding on greenfield sites--yet again with the approval of the Liberal Democrat party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) made a thoughtful contribution to the debate. He described a very sad constituency case and went on to deal with matters to do with young people and how this House should address the challenges of making policy on them. He has also announced that he will retire at the election. We shall certainly miss speeches such as that he gave this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) raised two very sad and tragic cases. The hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town

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(Mr. Fitzpatrick) also raised local issues, as did the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn). I will not be drawn into a party political response to the hon. Member for Jarrow, although I remind him in respect of his comments about the Conservative Government that the Labour Government are taking the matter forward only because there has been a High Court judgment. The hon. Gentleman will know that High Court judgments must be applied, whichever party is in power. We welcome the fact that the Labour Government are taking the matter forward, but it is not of their own volition. The matter was tested first in the High Court. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows the background to that as well as I do.

Other hon. Members raised matters concerning important issues outside these shores. The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) began the debate by addressing the difficult and on-going problems of Cyprus, about which I know he has much knowledge, which he wanted to share with the House again today. The hon. Member for West Ham, who, unfortunately, is not in his place, raised the way in which Canadian seals are culled. I know that that subject is close to his heart. The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) raised the tragic situation surrounding the earthquake in Gujarat, which clearly affects many of his constituents.

Conservative Members raised matters to do with foot and mouth, which is hardly surprising. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned that not just people living in the countryside are very concerned about the tragedy and crisis that have struck us. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) on the subject, in which I know he is well versed.

From the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), we sensed their frustration about getting answers in time, which many of us have shared in the past few weeks. When there is a crisis of any kind, the relevant Government Department is besieged with dozens of letters and questions. My hon. Friends made it clear that if, in a crisis such as the present one, Members of Parliament cannot get answers and our intervention in individual cases in our constituencies are not dealt with in 24 or 48 hours, there may be dramatic consequences. Cattle may be slaughtered unnecessarily. Sheer frustration has been the hallmark of the past few weeks for Members of Parliament who wanted quick answers to pressing and urgent matters.

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