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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Collusion.

Andrew Mackinlay: Absolutely.

As a result, hon. Members who want to be allowed to serve on a Select Committee will be on good behaviour until October. That is a very serious point. It also means six or seven months without scrutiny in this place. How

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can we possibly defend that? We cannot do so. Even if the Select Committees are set up at the end of July, before we go on summer recess, they will not be able to do much, but they do have the right to sit during the summer recess and if a crisis occurred Committees could sit. The Committees can also prepare their plans for investigations in the autumn, and they will have a Chairperson. But if we kick everything into touch until October, the Select Committees probably will not be in operation until late November.

Is the Minister in a position to say from the Dispatch Box that the charges that I made are wholly wrong, wholly unsubstantiated and unfair to the Government?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): As my hon. Friend knows, this is not a matter for the Front Bench; it is a matter for the usual channels.

Andrew Mackinlay: I do not accept that. It is a matter for Back Benchers. It is a matter for Parliament. It is a matter of our rights and our obligations to the electorate. I hope that people will pick up on the fact that the Government are colluding with the Conservative Front Bench not to set up the Select Committees.

Finally, I believe that people who give evidence to Select Committees should do so under oath; it should be automatic. People come before Select Committees and do not give true testimony. I also believe that attempts to prevent people from appearing were made in the previous Parliament.

Earlier today, you read out the Sessional Orders, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There was some levity, which I can understand; I was amused about things such as access to Parliament and so on. However, the important point is that you said:

If the House does not accept the need for oaths to be taken, the Sessional Orders should certainly be drawn to the attention of all witnesses in writing before they appear, and they should be so cautioned by the Chairman of the Select Committee. That would produce the sober realisation in witnesses--whether they are public servants, in commerce or Ministers--that they must tell Parliament the truth, that there should be no interference and that no impediment should be placed in their way or attempt made to dissuade them from appearing before Select Committees, as I think has happened in the past.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) rose--

Andrew Mackinlay: Has the hon. Gentleman an assurance for us?

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman is always listened to with great attention in the House, especially on constitutional and parliamentary matters, and, if I may say so, he is on particularly good form this evening. Would he do anything about the extraordinary system that pertains at present under which the Whips determine who serves on the Select Committees, so that, essentially,

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the Government determine which hon. Members serve on the Select Committees that hold them to account? Is that not an incestuous system? Will he succeed in persuading the new Leader of the House and the rest of his colleagues, who have such an overwhelming majority in this Parliament, to do something about that extraordinary anomaly?

Andrew Mackinlay: First, I was one of the hon. Members who argued consistently about that in the previous Parliament. In fact, I gave the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), a lot of aggravation about her not implementing the Liaison Committee report, "Shifting the Balance". On one occasion, I taunted her about the fact that the Government would not set up the Select Committees before the summer recess, which she vehemently denied. Last week, when I tackled a high-up person in my party about whether the Select Committees would be set up before the parliamentary recess and reminded him of the undertaking that the former Leader of House had given, he said, "Ah, that was predicated on there being a May election." That was when I became alarmed about setting up the Select Committees.

I have answered the hon. Gentleman; will he now answer me on behalf of the Opposition? Is he prepared to tell the Government that, regardless of its leadership election, the Conservative party demands that the Select Committee machinery should be set up with vigour before the summer recess? Would the hon. Gentleman like to respond on behalf of his party? I take it that he does not. I have explained what is wrong with the House. We cannot get an undertaking from the Government or from the Opposition, so it is now time for Back Benchers to say, "Enough" and assert that the Government and the Opposition should be discredited for this cosy carve-up of what should be Parliament's role, duty and right.

9.43 pm

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few brief comments. First, I should like to refer to the two excellent maiden speeches. They represent a simple ABC reminder to all hon. Members because they were appropriate, brief and competent. All hon. Members would do well to take note of the way in which they were delivered.

I want to refer to a few things briefly and then to concentrate on a couple of main issues. I welcome the fact that the Queen's Speech states that we shall reintroduce legislation on leasehold reform and international development. That is crucial. I am also glad that we shall do more about secondary education. I wish that we could do more to advise parents of their rights and about preferences, as opposed to choices, in selecting secondary schools for their children. Those two matters are not always the same. If parents state three reasonable preferences, I should like to work towards a position where all parents could be given one of them.

The Government have done an excellent job with the NHS and in education since 1997. I hope that we can carry with us the teachers and others who work in education and the NHS in the next four or five years because that is crucial.

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I am glad that we will return to the issue of hunting with dogs. One young girl in my constituency echoed the views of the many thousands of people who find it incredible, given the public support for banning hunting and the large majority that that commands in the House, that an unelected, unaccountable House was able to block legislation on it. We should not let that happen again.

Although there are many international situations in which we must work towards peace, we need to play a leading role in Kashmir. However, we cannot solve the problem without the help of the people of Pakistan, India and Kashmir itself. The issue needs to be kept on the agenda and we must do what we can to find a solution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) made an excellent speech. I agreed 100 per cent. with what he said about regional assemblies, so I shall not go into detail on those. I also agreed with the way in which he would form the second Chamber, whatever we want to call it--the House of Lords or the House of representatives. I advocated the same formula for representation in that Chamber.

Two other constitutional matters need our attention. First, if we move towards elected regional assemblies, we need unitary local government throughout the country. We need to get away from the ad hoc hybrid system that is left over from the procedure introduced by the previous Conservative Government. Secondly, as a member of the Modernisation Committee, I believe that we have a great deal to do on modernisation. We need to ensure that scrutiny of legislation is top of the agenda if we are to make more progress than we did in the previous Parliament.

I want to concentrate on two issues that have been touched on. The consultation on reform of local government finance needs to be advanced. Although I was not a candidate in the 1979 election--I was not elected until 1983--the Tories, who won, said that they wanted to set the town halls free, but instead they immediately shackled them by introducing legislation and cutting finance. We forget that the poll tax was accompanied by a cut in the national expenditure to fund local government. That trend has continued year after year. We need to ensure that local government can do the job that it is elected to perform.

Every authority--in my case, Lancashire county council--is squeezed for money for social services. More money is needed if those services are to be provided. Two thirds of Burnley's property is in council tax band A. That is too much and the banding widths need to be changed. However, that alone will not solve the problem. Burnley also inherited many assets, such as parks, museums and sports centres, that were donated by benefactors over many years. They are supported by the public, but cost a lot of money to provide and we are in severe difficulty. Burnley district council, like many other local authorities, took part in painful exercises earlier this year to see how its budget could be used to provide essential services in the area. The limitation of the council tax benefit subsidy unfairly penalises many areas where there is a high rate of benefit dependency. We need to consider that problem.

Burnley has lost much as a result of the withdrawal of the revenue support grant from the council over the years. It is the only district in England with a standard spending assessment that is lower than it was when the poll tax ended in 1993. In 1992-93, the SSA was £11.7 million; it

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is now only £11.5 million, despite inflation of 27 per cent. over that period. If it had increased with inflation, council tax would be lower and we would be able to provide many more services. That is a tremendous problem for Burnley. I am sorry that there is nothing in the Queen's Speech to say that we will follow up the consultation on local government finance. It is not a matter of tinkering at the edges; we need real reform. I have said several times that it is no good altering the area cost adjustment because that will benefit only some local authorities; others will lose out. We need major structural change.

I know from my work in the general election, from looking around the area and from meeting people at my advice surgery and reading their letters, that the biggest single problem for my local authority is the fact that it has 3,500 empty homes. That is a nightmare, as we can see from the dereliction and other problems that are created. An old lady of 87 came to me. She has lived in her house for over 50 years and she is absolutely terrified because every property in her block is now empty; there have been three fires in adjacent properties and there are drug addicts around. People have to pay council tax on properties that they cannot sell because, with 3,500 empty homes, the council cannot be flexible. It cannot admit that the situation is nonsense because nobody can sell or buy those homes.

East Lancashire has 225,000 privately owned properties, about half of which were built before 1919. A quarter of the whole stock, some 52,000 properties, is unfit for habitation, and a similar proportion is in serious disrepair. That is a major problem for areas such as mine. There is nobody to live in those houses. Nobody wants them. There is no value in them if they are demolished. People who are trying to sell such houses say that their best offer so far is £1,200 or perhaps £4,000. One could buy almost a whole estate of empty houses in Burnley for the price of one property in London.

The current index of deprivation shows that, in housing, we have five of the worst 30 wards nationally. Four districts in east Lancashire are among the eight nationally with the most serious problems of low demand in private sector housing. It is estimated that £150 million of public money is spent on housing annually in east Lancashire, and two thirds of that is spent on housing benefit. We estimate that in Burnley alone we need £150 million, yet the capital expenditure for private housing is only £3 million. The problem is getting worse and we cannot solve it alone.

I accept that Burnley borough council must make difficult decisions. I say "difficult" because everybody who has been a councillor will know that as soon as clearance is mentioned, people protest and say that they want to save the nice houses tucked away in the midst of all the empty ones. However, clearance is the only way to solve the problem of surplus housing, and we must decide which houses should come down. We need Government help to do that. Burnley and east Lancashire have an excellent track record in delivering programmes for renewal areas, group repair and housing clearance, but we need more help not only in Burnley but in neighbouring authorities.

I call on the Government to increase the priority given to resources for private sector housing renewal and clearance, perhaps in the next comprehensive spending review, although that would be leaving it too long. We need to consider the case for designating special housing

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market renewal areas where there is clear evidence of collapsed housing markets, as in much of east Lancashire. We need to issue guidance to the North West development agency saying that private sector housing renewal and clearance is an acceptable focus for its targeting of resources and programmes as part of the neighbourhood renewal agenda. We need to amend the public service agreement targets to include private sector housing as well as social housing.

I know that one of my colleagues wishes to speak, and I do not want to prevent him from doing so, so I shall make this point my last. Another colleague said that we need to introduce at an early date legislation on the licensing of private landlords, particularly in low-demand areas. I support that goal. Burnley and other towns need similar support and positive action from the Government, whom I strongly support.

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