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12.20 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) on their fine maiden speeches, and I look forward to their future contributions. Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to his predecessor, Robin Corbett, who is now in the other place. I have known him for more than a decade, and he has been a good friend and a great campaigner on many issues. I am sure that he will make the same contribution in the upper House.

I want to say a few words about the operation of the planning and licensing system, and how it has affected a democratically elected councillor in Teesside. I am aware that proposals have been made to look into the operation of the planning process and the court system, and especially to consider how to streamline the appeal process and how to make the court process more effective.

Last year, a major retailer, the Safeway group, applied for a liquor licence on a site in Low lane, Middlesbrough, on the boundary line of my constituency. The application raised strong objections in that pleasant residential part of Middlesbrough. There are a number of schools in the vicinity: Acklam Grange secondary school, King's Manor secondary school and St. David's comprehensive school. Further afield there is Coulby Newham secondary school, whose catchment area is affected. All those schools had concerns about the increased ability of their pupils to access liquor. Local residents were also unhappy about the proposal.

The proposal was for the sales point to be a mini-market on the site of a large garage and filling station. Many people felt that having an outlet for alcoholic drink on a site almost solely accessed by motorists drove a coach and horses through any attempts to cut down on drink driving. In their initial hearing, the magistrates took those objections fully on board, and the application was refused. Safeway, as is its right, lodged an objection to that refusal. That was when the fun began.

My colleague and friend on Middlesbrough borough council, Councillor John McPartland, had represented his constituents faithfully in their objections. He formally

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asked to be an objector, and to be allowed to speak at the appeal hearing on his own behalf and on behalf of Kader ward community council. He was to appear at the hearing with Mr. John Bate, the head of Acklam Grange school, as his key witness. There was an exchange of correspondence between Councillor McPartland and the solicitors acting for Safeway, Messrs Cartwrights of Bristol.

In that exchange, the spectre of a possible application for costs against Councillor McPartland as an individual was suddenly raised by Cartwrights. That naturally alarmed Councillor McPartland, and in my view he correctly took advice from the Court Service, which was bleak and to the point. The Court Service itself took advice from His Honour Judge Fox QC, who stated:

On receiving that advice, Councillor McPartland withdrew his objection. As he put it in a letter to me:

The practice of applying for costs is well established both in courts and in planning appeals. It serves as a deterrent to a planning committee or licensing body so that they do not make decisions that are frivolous or that fly in the face of established and agreed plans and policies. However, on the occasions when such applications were made and granted, they were against a corporate body, such as a local council or planning committee, but not against an individual. In all my years of political experience, I have never before come across such an implicit threat to an individual objector.

This matter should be re-examined in the review of the planning and court procedures that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. To remove such a threat against an individual, while retaining it for a corporate body, will not lead to the appearance of a flood of frivolous or malicious litigants mounting cases against a planned development or a liquor licence. It will mean that a councillor such as John McPartland can represent his or her constituents adequately and fully with the fear of punitive costs banished from their mind.

We are talking about the balance of forces between massive multinational corporations and the individual: the balance of forces and resources between highly profitable companies with deep and well-lined pockets and local people who do not have the comfort of such institutional, financial and legal backing. That means that all must be equal before the law, but that is not the case at present: some are far more equal than others. I want the Leader of the House to take up that point. It needs to be addressed

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and I hope that it will be considered when our Government undertake the proper review of the planning and licensing system.

I look forward to an outcome that will satisfy Councillor John McPartland and others in similar situations, and indeed everyone who wants to ensure that the ordinary man and woman can have their say at the bar of public opinion.

12.29 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point): I am sure that the House welcomes the presence of the Leader of the House at this debate. It shows that he attaches proper importance to such occasions. He and the House shared a great treat when we heard excellent maiden speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon). Both spoke with insight and wisdom, gave vivid descriptions of their constituencies, and paid generous and courteous tributes to their predecessors—as indeed they should, because their predecessors were excellent. We are in for a treat when those two hon. Members speak again. I look forward to it.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise several important issues that affect my constituents in this Adjournment debate, the first that I have managed to speak in since my re-election to this place. I shall start with a word about education, and that is right because education is the key issue in society today. It is an investment in our future. It affects all our futures. If we get it right, we will create the ability to resolve all our other problems. If we do not get it right, we will be for ever firefighting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) spoke with great force about teacher shortages, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). We have teacher shortages in my constituency too but I will not add to their arguments. I simply associate myself with their comments. I am delighted to have been given the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Education and Skills, where I can perhaps help to guide the Government as they seek to develop education policy.

I shall also raise health, the environment and our road infrastructure. I would like to speak about many other issues but time will deny me that pleasure. For example, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) mentioned the problem in Cyprus and the need for a solution. I will work with him and hon. Members on both sides of the House to find a just solution to the Cypriot problem. I hope that Cyprus's European Union membership can be a catalyst for resolving it.

Last night, I attended the Canvey schools partnership awards evening. Eighty-seven children from 15 schools on Canvey Island were there to receive awards. Hundreds of parents and many dedicated teachers and head teachers were there to celebrate the effort and achievement of Canvey children as a whole as well as the 87 Canvey children who received specific awards. We saw an excellent array of talent and potential, as Paul Lincoln, director of learning services at Essex county council, rightly said.

The Canvey schools partnership is a local initiative. I congratulate those who thought of it and who have carefully advanced it a considerable way. The 15 head

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teachers in particular must be congratulated on working together to raise the issue of education on Canvey Island. We on Canvey Island should all be working together with the three local sixth form options—Furtherwick school, King John school and Seevic college—to drive up recognition of the importance of education.

Like the parents, I was proud, and indeed a little humbled, to see so many bright, positive and cheerful children receiving their awards. I congratulate each of them, particularly those who had overcome adversities during their years in education. I recognise that, like all the children in Canvey Island, they benefit from excellent and dedicated teachers and staff in their schools, whom I congratulate.

I emphasise the part that parents play in their children's education. Many factors influence outcomes in education. Perhaps one of the most important is the involvement, interest and encouragement that parents can give to their children. The Canvey schools partnership is a good initiative. The awards evening was a worthwhile event. I hope that it will be repeated to help to reinforce the importance of education for all my constituents.

I wish to raise an important health issue. Multiple sclerosis is a very difficult disease that afflicts many people. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) mentioned it earlier, and I shall not repeat the points that he made with more eloquence than I could emulate. He raised the matter with great passion.

A number of people in Castle Point suffer from multiple sclerosis, including one of my constituents who is a young lady, very young to get the disease, and to whom I shall refer as Miss A. The clinical evidence shows that treatment with beta interferon can help to arrest the disease. In certain circumstances, the growth of demyelinated plaques can be slowed if beta interferon is used at an early stage. Beta interferon is particularly effective when used early in the course of the disease, and any delay can result in irreparable damage, which is a cause of great concern to Miss A. She fits the criteria for beta interferon use that the Multiple Sclerosis Society has established, but she has been denied the right to receive the treatment.

I do not know when the Government will get their act together on the issue and start focusing on helping patients in need. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence report has been delayed for about two years, and now it is not expected until November, but it should be made available more swiftly if possible. Even an interim report would be welcome. Regardless of that, I do not know why we have to wait for the NICE report to allow the use of beta interferon. There is enough clinical evidence showing that it gives real benefits and it should be used now.

On 18 July, the Prime Minister said that the delay in making beta interferon available was justified. I thought that that comment was outrageous. Of course it is important for NICE to get its investigation right and carefully consider the facts, but it is also important to treat patients now, when they really need that help. I think that all hon. Members know that if it were the Prime Minister's child who needed beta interferon, that help would be delivered right now.

The continued Government delay is disgraceful and is more about NHS rationing than about clinical decision making. It is about saving money for the Government.

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Ministers are acting irresponsibly, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will address that issue in his reply. I shall seek every possible way of raising the issue in future.

Another important issue is Pitsea tip, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay is also dealing because it is in his constituency, although it is largely my constituents in Benfleet and Canvey Island who live in its shadow and suffer its effects. I shall work closely with him on the matter, and we have already tabled 10 to 15 questions to try to hold the Government to account on it. That is a job that we shall do. So far, except for one question, we have received only holding answers. Suddenly, as the House rises for the summer recess, one answer slipped through. The timing raised some suspicions in my mind. When I read it, I realised that the Government have something to hide.

I was first alerted to the problem of Pitsea tip by the Evening Echo. Within one hour, I had raised the issue with Mr. Speaker, and within two hours I had raised the matter on the Floor of the House with the Leader of the House. One of the questions that I tabled to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs requested the dates when deposits of poisonous ash at Pitsea tip were first suspected and when they were stopped. The Secretary of State replied:

That is a remarkably dangerous level of contamination.

The Secretary of State continued:

So there we have it. The timing is critical to my constituents in Benfleet and Canvey Island who live in the vicinity of the tip and have been exposed to dangerous deposits and contaminated poisonous ash for a year longer than they should have been—from early 1998 to the end of 1998 when the disposals were stopped—even though the Government were aware of the danger.

The responsibility for this is clear. There was a Labour Government in 1998, a Labour Member of Parliament for Castle Point and a Labour borough council. I want to know why no action was taken. I took action within an hour—not a day, a week or a year. I want to know why Castle Point people were not told what was going on and who they can hold to account for that lapse. If the Labour Government told the Labour Member of Parliament for Castle Point and the borough council, why did they not make the information public? If the Labour Government did not tell anyone, why not? It is clear that Castle Point people have been betrayed by, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West says, a rotten Labour Government who put spin before people's safety.

There must be an inquiry into who knew what, when they knew it and what has been done to ensure that action can be taken now to minimise the risk that we have lived with for too long in Castle Point. Dioxins are nasty substances; they kill people and they damage our environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay and I still await assurances that action will be taken to

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remove the risk. We also await answers to the rest of our questions, which were tabled some two weeks ago under the priority written questions rule, for answer within three days. We have a duty to protect our constituents and we will work together to do that.

I now turn to the third road for Canvey Island. This is not just about congestion and convenience; it is about safety, access for emergency services and escape in the event of, God forbid, another flood. We all know that the tides are getting higher every year. Last week, Canvey Island was blocked off by a simple damaged sewer pipe that brought much of Benfleet and the whole of Canvey Island to a standstill for several hours.

There used to be an ambulance station on Canvey Island, but Essex ambulance services now proposes to move the ambulance off the island and station it on the mainland. If someone collapses with an asthma attack, anaphylactic shock, a heart attack or a stroke, the speed with which an ambulance can get to them and then get them to an accident and emergency department at Basildon or Southend hospital is critical to their chances. If the ambulance first has to get on to the island and then get back off it, that will create problems and may result in my constituents suffering damage that they would not otherwise have suffered. Some may die. I will continue to fight to keep the ambulance on the island. The roads to the island are often completely blocked, so if the emergency services were stationed on the mainland they could not even get on to the island, let alone back off it.

Councillor Ray Howard, known locally as "Mr. Canvey", is the key champion of the third road. This week, he rightly said:

Neighbouring authorities are also key players, and they have been a bit protectionist, obstructive and nimbyish. I think that they are a little misguided. Thurrock has consistently refused to accept a route to Corringham from Canvey, and Basildon has also been obstructive. We in south-east Essex must work together for the benefit of the community at large.

There is now a real chance to make progress. There are three factors that can help us. The first is the Thames gateway regeneration project, which can help to provide funding for the infrastructure. The second is a positive attitude from Ministers, whom I thank and commend for taking the time to go to Canvey and see the situation. I hope to invite them again and again, until we finally get our third road. The third is a commitment of all the local communities and authorities to work together for the benefit of the wider community in south-east Essex. Those three ingredients, working together with synergy, might provide the answer that has been long sought.

The preferred route now is to the west, probably up to the Five Bells roundabout in Basildon. I warmly welcome Basildon council leader John Potter's statement in the Evening Echo:

He has shown courage and foresight in making that offer. I hope that he means what he says. We must be able to find a solution that fairly balances people's needs and the

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importance of our infrastructure development. I welcome John Potter's generous offer to talk, and hope that the talks can now take place.

The public will not forgive any political party that holds up progress on Canvey's third road. The Basildon Labour party must think carefully about that, and I hope that it will decide to put nimby instincts aside and work constructively for a solution for Canvey's third road.

Let me say how much I have enjoyed my return to the House. I know that I have much to learn and to re-learn before I can match the skills of those who sit on the Benches around me, on both sides of the House.

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