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Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): Does the hon. Gentleman share the disappointment of many parents, which was articulated by Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector of schools, that after five years the Labour Government have failed to narrow the gap between the best-performing and worst-performing schools?

Mr. Shaw: The Ofsted report shows that all schools are improving. The gap is not widening, but there are disaffected groups in our secondary schools, so we must consider what to do about that. Do we just blame the Labour Government?

Mr. Hoban: Yes.

Mr. Shaw: That is it then; the hon. Gentleman simply blames the Labour Government, but we should start to talk about policies to find a different curriculum to meet the needs, especially those of young men, in the schools in our constituencies. I would have hoped that, instead of just blaming the Government, the hon. Gentleman had something a little more constructive to contribute on an important issue that affects many young people and parents in his constituency.

We must also recognise that we need to deal with literacy issues. The Government's programme of providing more basic adult literacy and numeracy skills is absolutely crucial. As Opposition Members have said, finding or holding down jobs is enormously difficult when people do not have basic skills. It is not just a case of finding jobs; people often have hurdles to overcome to secure those jobs. If there is a downturn in an area, the people without basic numeracy and literacy skills will be the first go. The Government's target of training 750,000 people is very ambitious; nevertheless it is right and proper.

I want to talk about a couple of infrastructure issues in the south-east before I conclude my speech, as I know that other hon. Members want to speak. We live in a crowded country. Indeed, the south-east is one of the most heavily populated and crowded areas in the United Kingdom. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, there are always competing demands in providing affordable housing for the indigenous population, teachers, social workers, nurses and all sorts of other key public sector workers, but finding the solutions to those demands is enormously problematic.

Those competing demands require us to consider the availability of brownfield sites. Until the Labour Government were elected, we did not know the full extent of our brownfield land. We fully understood where

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housing could be built, other than on greenfield sites, only when the Government undertook a proper audit. The 60:40 split will present different pressures to different areas. Some areas will be able to deliver without a great deal of problems. There are many brownfield sites throughout the Thames gateway area in north Kent, and they have been earmarked for large-scale development.

In every inner-city constituency, there are many rundown properties, and it is right to reduce VAT on renovating properties. With the competing demands of protecting the countryside and providing enough housing for people, it is perverse that VAT for new build on greenfield sites, which builders find cheapest, convenient and most attractive, is zero rated, yet 5 per cent. VAT is still charged on renovating properties, which is expensive on contaminated land and logistically difficult in inner cities. At some point in the future, that scale must be tipped the other way. Logic demands that we make more use of what we have already, so there has to be a fiscal incentive to renovate rather to build new.

I have spoken mainly about Kent—the county that I have lived in all my life. In the constituency where I was born, the primary and secondary schools and the very poor areas, which I know very well, have made important advances in the past few years, under the Labour Government. We have run the economy well. My constituency has the third youngest population in the south-east, but let me tell the House about one of the key things that people told me during the election campaign. Some 80 per cent. of my constituents have mortgages, and they all vividly remember the affect of 15 per cent. interest rates and the recession. They lost their jobs; then they lost their houses; and then they found out that their houses were worth less than they paid for them, and they told me that they put the blame at the foot of the Conservative party.

7.35 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I am pleased to support the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), whose constituency neighbours mine. The Minister besmirched his name, so let me begin by answering that. I have checked in the intervening hours between the Minister's insults to my hon. Friend and now, and I can assure the House that there are no fleshpots in Brentwood and Ongar—at least, not yet—so whatever the reason for my hon. Friend's move from his previous abode to the south-east, it was not in search of fleshpots.

It is good to have this debate. The Government often initiate debates about Scotland, Wales and different industries in various parts of the country, yet we rarely have an opportunity to speak about London and the south-east. We have the opportunity to raise such issues on the Floor of the House today only because we have used our Opposition time, and I greatly welcome the opportunity.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) said that the motion is negative, but it is very positive. We all know that there great advantages to living in and around London, but there are also some problems, which is what the motion highlights. I have lived in other parts of the country and I know the different lifestyles of people in other areas, so I can compare where I live now with other parts of the country.

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Hon. Members will not be surprised if I assure them that the towns and villages around Epping Forest are certainly the best places to live in the United Kingdom today. However, I object to the assumption, often made by Labour and Liberal Democrats and members of other parties, that there is only affluence in London and the south-east. There is no doubt that that part of the country has many advantages, but I have been astounded at the complacency of Ministers and many Labour Members who have spoken this evening about planning, housing, transport, crime, health and education. The people who live in my constituency have considerable problems with those issues.

When considering what I would say this evening, I did not look up any statistics—I did not have to. I have merely reflected on the lifestyles and the daily lives of the people who live in Epping Forest, and I know what those problems are. I shall begin with planning. We are fortunate that the forest in and around Epping is protected land, but it is protected by ancient laws whereby it is owned by the City of London corporation and protected by laws made 150 years ago. It is not protected by modern planning laws, so we have to fight right, left and centre to keep the green belt and to preserve the rural areas on the edge of London.

Nowadays, we have to fight the Government's ridiculous ideas on housing to try to preserve the little bit of rural land that still exists. Queen Victoria gave Epping Forest to her people for the enjoyment of the people of London, so that they could get out of London and the areas with no green belt and no trees and go to a place where children could play, which would be pleasant to live in and visit and where people and wildlife could breathe and prosper. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) so eloquently put it, the Government are trying to dump thousands of houses on the green belt without considering what effect that will have on the areas immediately around London.

Mike Gapes: Is the hon. Lady saying that the Government propose to build on Epping Forest? Can she clarify that? I grew up in Essex and know Epping Forest well. The argument about marginal changes on the edge of the green belt is one thing, but there is no suggestion that Epping Forest is to be built on.

Mrs. Laing: Certainly not, and I apologise if I have not made myself clear. The forest is protected because of ancient laws made more than 150 years ago, but the rest of the area is not because of the Government's negligent attitude towards planning, as witnessed in the desire of the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers to dump houses regardless of the opinions of local people.

The cost of private sector housing in London and the south-east is another problem. I agree with much that the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) said about the need to build more social housing, council housing and starter homes. However, stamp duty and house prices also need to be addressed. They are not popular issues. Indeed, when I raised them in my maiden speech nearly five years ago, Labour Members laughed at me. I said that the cost of an average three-bedroomed house in my constituency went beyond the stamp duty threshold and that that

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affected middle-income, middle-class families who wanted to buy a house that was big enough for them to live in without any grandeur.

In the five years since then, house prices in my part of the world have more or less doubled, so the point that I made then is relevant now. The cost of buying property in and around London makes it impossible for people on average incomes to get on the housing ladder. That is not fair. Of course, the Government cannot control everything that has caused the rise in house prices. However, there are some things on which they can take immediate action and make a huge difference to purchasers, especially first-time buyers. Stamp duty is one such thing. I appreciate that the Minister cannot speak on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it would be good to know that Ministers are aware of the problem.

The massive rise in house prices makes it difficult for first-time buyers to get mortgages. Many mortgage companies believe that today's inflated house prices do not reflect the actual value of houses. The housing market in and around London is becoming distorted and is not working as it should. Some of that is down to the Government's negligence, and they should do something about it.

In addition, if a house is the main asset that is passed on from one generation of a family to another and its value is above the stamp duty threshold, the duty is payable on the whole of the asset. Stamp duty has become nothing more than an extra inheritance tax for many ordinary families in and around London. The Government could solve that problem with the stroke of a pen.

Transport was well covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar. I will not reiterate his points except to say that the tube is important for my constituents. They have waited five years for the Government to do something about it, but they have taken no action. They have done nothing to improve the journey to work that thousands of people from my part of the world have to make every morning.

On crime, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made an excellent speech and I would not dream of gilding the lily. I agree with every word that she said, as would all right-thinking normal people in Britain. It is time that the Government woke up and listened to her.

I am especially worried about education and the disgraceful way in which the Government have handled teachers. Teachers need to be told that they are respected professionals and that their work is valued. Parents in my constituency and Conservative Members value it, but the Government do not. They have handled teachers so badly that they are going on strike the day after tomorrow. That poses huge problems for children, who will miss a day's schooling, and for mothers who depend on their children attending school so that they can go to work. On Thursday, those mothers will discover that there is no school for their children to attend, and that missed schooling will make a difference. It will cause enormous disruption to families. The problem is not funny. It is not just about dogma or about pay and conditions; it is about how badly the Government handle people who are doing professional jobs.

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Teacher shortages pose a particular problem in my area. Epping Forest is not part of London; it is part of Essex. Teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses, hospital workers, local government officers and those on an average salary in my constituency do not get a London allowance—

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