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9.36 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I suppose I could say that it is a blooming pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I wish him and Stafford great success in the Britain in Bloom competition. I agree with his remarks about the House of Commons education unit, which does absolutely first-class work, and I hope that all hon. Members will try to give at least one day to the unit to help it with the education programme for children who come into this place from all over the country, and who, I believe, thoroughly enjoy what is often their first glimpse of our parliamentary system.

Before we go into recess, I would like to raise a few issues about my constituency of Chesham and Amersham, which is a pleasant and, indeed, highly desirable place to

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live. Non-residents sometimes perceive it as an area without problems, but we all know that things are not often as they first appear. Indeed, I wonder whether it is because the Government seem so obsessed with appearances rather than fundamental facts that they appear determined to starve my constituency and others in Buckinghamshire of resources, and to ignore the wishes of local people. Their policies, which result in financial deprivation, are now beginning to ride roughshod over the area, and are affecting the quality of life of my constituents in many ways.

I am not sure what we in Chesham and Amersham have done to the Deputy Prime Minister, but he seems to have it in for us. I hope to illustrate that tonight. At county level, the planning reforms trumpeted by the right hon. Gentleman have been greeted with dismay and disbelief. The proposals have been widely criticised by respondents to the Government's own consultation, with 90 per cent. opposing the abolition of county structure plans, and 88 per cent. rejecting a proposal to replace structure and local plans with a new local development framework.

Local decision making in Bucks is going to be significantly reduced, and there is now a great deal of uncertainty over future development in the county. The despair felt by my councillors can hardly be expressed, and our cabinet member for planning and transportation, Councillor Rodney Royston, is urging the Government to rethink their plans, and not to rush through ill-conceived proposals that have no widespread support. This is just the latest blow to our hard-pressed county council, which is facing growing burdens on its social services budget—not to mention problems in education—and which has been demoralised, not least by the restructuring forced on it by the Government's reforms.

The cabinet system of portfolio holders means that the roles of ordinary back-bench councillors are vastly diminished—so much so that their roles are marginalised while an unbelievably heavy burden falls on the portfolio holders. I actually think that the Government's ultimate aim is to get rid of county councils, but they appear quite willing to kill off some of the councillors in the process. Unless something is done about this structure, we shall face meltdown not only in my county council but in others as well.

The situation is much the same for district councils. Chiltern district council is one of the six local authorities that receive no revenue support grant from central Government. All that it receives is a refund of some of the national non-domestic rate. The leader of the council, Don Phillips, has pointed out that the revenue support grant and national non-domestic rate grant will be replaced by a formula-based grant. Chiltern starts with a disadvantage, because it does not receive revenue support grant. It seeks a compensatory payment to put it on the same footing as the vast majority of district councils. Councillor Phillips has described the new arrangements as "unjust and inequitable", and they will certainly impinge on council tax payers in Chesham and Amersham.

The local government settlement for 2002–03 continued the discrimination against shire district councils. Buckinghamshire county council's revenue support grant fails to acknowledge the level of spending required to support social services and, in particular, care for the elderly. It was hoped that reparations might be made in the proposals for future local government

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funding, but that has not happened. Proposals were made recently by—yes, again, the Deputy Prime Minister. It looks as if, rather than a recognition of the needs of shire counties such as Buckinghamshire, there will be an outflow of funds to other less prudently run authorities, whether in London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Can that possibly be right? Council tax payers in my constituency should not be expected to shore up inefficient authorities, whether near or far.

There is a lack of funding in Buckinghamshire which needs to be redressed. It can be illustrated by an incident at Chalfont St Peter at a time when residents were looking forward to celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee. A contingent of travellers pitched camp in the village on Monday 3 June, and mayhem ensued. The police estimated that at any one time there were 30 to 40 vehicles with trailers and other equipment. The behaviour of the travellers—I regret to say that it was often children under 10 who behaved in an antisocial fashion, with no supervision by their elders—led to the logging of more than 60 complaints with the local police. Complaints about criminal damage, harassment and acts of vandalism were coupled with a disturbing list of allegations of physical assaults—including one sexual assault—and revolting behaviour such as public defecation, urination and indecent exposure.

No community should be expected to put up with behaviour of that kind, but the mechanism enabling the travellers to be moved on could not be put into action because public offices were closed for the bank holidays. The police, too, were hampered by a lack of resources over the holiday period. It was Wednesday 12 June before the county council could enact its eviction order.

I welcome what the Home Secretary has said about refusing to allow behaviour by travellers that would not be tolerated in other sections of the community. That is fair. Indeed, the local police sector commander has acknowledged publicly that there must be a good level of support from the police when such incidents occur. Incursion by travellers will be dealt with robustly. Funding for the police, however, is tied in with funding for local government, and, as we know, Buckinghamshire has been systematically starved of central Government support.

While I welcome the Home Secretary's approach, I want it to be backed up with hard cash for police forces such as the Thames Valley force so that when such incidents take place their hands are not tied by a lack of resources. Perhaps the Home Secretary should consider the impounding of vehicles if travellers do not leave any site promptly. Perhaps he will consult—yes, the Deputy Prime Minister. He has published the details of a new approach to tackling illegal encampments, and new guidance is promised for the autumn, but we shall have to wait until then, and yet again there is no extra money for the tackling of those illegal encampments.

It should not be forgotten that it cost £9,000 to clear up after the incursion. The impact on businesses is hard to calculate, but the events of that week will form part of residents' memories of what should have been a peaceful celebration.

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Perhaps we would have a better chance of dealing with such incursions, and with other criminal and antisocial activities, if we had the requisite number of policemen in the Thames Valley area. At present we face growing problems, with little real recognition or action from the Government. Admittedly the incidence of burglary and robbery has fallen in the Chiltern area, but the number of car crimes has increased in the past year, as has the number of sexual offences. So many officers are now leaving the force that my local newspaper, The Bucks Examiner, reported this week that our chief constable is calling for the introduction of a £10,000 transfer fee. Other forces would have to compensate Thames Valley when officers transferred. Even if that bright idea were accepted by the Home Secretary, it would be too late for one of the great backbones of law and order in my constituency: the special constable.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Is my hon. Friend aware that, in the Thames valley, we have lost so many police constables and there is such a recruitment crisis that the chief constable estimates that within 12 months one out of every two police officers will be a probationer?

Mrs. Gillan: I am familiar with that and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.

We are facing a sad situation in the Thames valley. In 1997, when the Government took office, we had 694 specials in the Thames Valley constabulary. A written answer on Friday to a question that I tabled said that, today, the number stands at a miserly 377. The Government should be ashamed that they have presided over such a decline in a key element of our policing. How on earth will the Government prevent the haemorrhaging of special constables in the Thames valley and in other areas?

I pay tribute to the police in Chesham and Amersham, who are doing a fantastic job in trying circumstances. We all think a great deal of them. As the editorial in the Bucks Free Press said this week:

We need a police force that is manned to its full strength to ensure that my constituents are allowed to live in peace.

My constituents strongly value the peaceful enjoyment of their homes. I was particularly pleased when I was recently asked to open purpose-built housing for workers at Amersham hospital. I hope that the people who have moved in will enjoy living in Amersham. Indeed, I welcome them particularly as neighbours; they live just down the road from me.

The Government are concerned with housing and housing for key workers, but while they have been focusing on that they have slipped out something else. My constituents are very concerned about one of the ideas being floated by Downing street: a stamp duty on property that would increase the longer the family had lived in the home. The idea, a chief economist at the Department of Health told The Daily Telegraph on 9 July, is

As one of my constituents in Amersham put it, she had always understood that even in the Soviet Union one had to commit a crime before the state drove an individual into exile. [Interruption.] The Minister is laughing but I

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think that he understands that that is a daft Downing street dodge that would undermine the strong communities in my constituency. Rather like the mean-spirited child in the playground who sees another child with a toy he envies, the instinct is not to steal the possession but to smash it up. It is the strong communities in Chesham, Amersham, the Chalfont villages, Hazlemere, Penn and Jordans whose quality of life this Government are breaking down.

I hope that I have voiced some of the issues we face in Chesham and Amersham this summer, although there are many more: care home shortages, pension shortfalls, burdens on schools and teachers, teacher shortages, bed blocking, transport chaos and disastrous rural policies to name but a few. They all add up to an attack on my constituents quite unprecedented in previous years.

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