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I urge Members to look carefully at the Wright Committee proposals to help to ensure that the agenda of Parliament is set by a cross-party Committee-by Parliament rather than the Government-and that Select Committee Chairs are elected rather than stitched up in smoke-filled rooms. We should look at more ways in which the public can interact with Parliament; perhaps they can even initiate proceedings in Parliament, whether through suggestions for topical debates or other methods. The Wright proposals are not the entire solution, and they do not go far enough, but they are a step in the right direction. I welcomed Mr. Speaker saying earlier today, in response to a point of order from my hon.
Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), that he had no reason to believe that these proposals would not be coming to the House and, I hope, voted on in the new year. That will be a very important piece of reform for the House to get through.
I would like to give sincere thanks to the members of my staff-Hannah Wright, Karen Hurst, Jamie McHale and Mark MacDonald-who have been absolutely fantastic this year in helping me to serve my constituents through my Bishopbriggs and Westminster offices.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that three more hon. Members would like to participate. I therefore hope that they will suspend from their minds the idea that they have 15 minutes each, because we have to get the wind-ups in, starting at approximately half-past 6, if there are to be responses to all the speeches that have been made. I hope that those three Members will try to help each other.
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). Let me start by wishing everyone a happy Christmas and a good new year, because I am so infuriated by what I am about to talk about that I will probably forget to do it at the end.
This afternoon I read an article on the BBC website that it is important to mention here. It flagged up a programme that finished about seven minutes ago; it was on the World Service and intended for Africa. It was on a part of the website, newsforums.bbc.co.uk, which does what it says on the tin-it is a forum about the news. It lists the most popular topics that people are talking about at the moment. No. 1 is:
"What impact will the BA strike have?"
"When does self-defence go too far?"
"What are the chances of a deal at Copenhagen?"
No. 5 is: "Are airbrushed adverts misleading?" One could say that each of those issues is interesting, there could be a debate about it, and it could be seen both ways. No. 2 is: "Should homosexuals face execution?" That is not really a question to which one can answer anything other than no. It is one of those 10 million questions to which the answer is no, although I do not wish to make light of it.
"What kind of question is this?"
"I can't believe I'm actually reading a debate on whether someone...should be executed, for their expressing their sexuality."
Initially I was completely mystified as to why on earth the BBC would have put this string up. I have the privilege of being the chair of the all-party group on the Great Lakes region and genocide prevention. It has a
couple of hundred members from this House and the other House. We are very active on issues to do with Africa, and we are aware that Uganda, sadly, is trying to put through a piece of legislation that would send people to jail for seven years if they are caught committing a homosexual act. Some people think that this will apply only if they have AIDS or HIV, but there is also a criterion whereby if they are a repeat offender they could be executed.
The BBC has chosen to deal with that issue by putting on its website a forum that asks us to consider and debate it, suggesting that one could see it both ways. Of course, it probably imagines that it is communicating mainly with people in Uganda and the rest of Africa. However, every person who has responded comes from somewhere else, such as Winchester, which is not known for being in Africa unless there is a Winchester in Uganda, and Alberta. N. F., a chap from Alberta, or perhaps it is a woman, writes:
"Can I move to Uganda? At least one country in the world is taking moral values seriously... It may sound extreme, but that shock value will allow more people to think about their actions beforehand."
My instinct is that the BBC has tried to tap into the kind of discussion that is going on in Uganda at the moment. We should be looking at it, as most people are, with abhorrence. President Museveni is tacitly encouraging a Back-Bench Bill that has a chance of becoming law and that is homophobic, brutal and savage. We should condemn it, and so should the BBC, just as we do sexual violence in the Congo or genocide in Rwanda or Darfur. Instead, the BBC seems to have thought it appropriate to come up with something that suggests that it is a subject for discussion. I believe that the BBC has done that because it is a subject for discussion in Uganda. But if it can do no more than suggest that there should be even-handed discussion-actually, it can and often does do more-there is something badly wrong.
As it happens, the BBC World Service does much fabulous work in Africa and across the world. It was recently closed down in Rwanda and the BBC spent a great deal of time and effort eventually getting the BBC Kinyarwanda service opened up there. Everyone recognises its great service to people who listen to it in the UK and across the world. However, there is something deeply wrong with the presentation on the website. As I said, it advertises a radio programme, which I have no doubt was mediated, and I am sure that whoever ran, produced and presented it tried to be even-handed in some way. I hope that they gave some sense that a decent, sensible debate about banning homosexuality and sending people to prison for it in Uganda should surely end up with our condemning it out of hand. That clearly has not happened on the website, and I hope that the BBC takes note.
It occurs to me that there is another result of what I consider to be this grave error by the BBC, which I suspect was made by someone fairly junior, because a more senior editor would have seen the problem before it went up on the website. The BBC knows who reads and responds to the website, and almost every person who has responded lives in England. One or two live abroad. It has engendered debate on the subject of whether we should execute homosexuals, and it has done so in Britain with UK taxpayers' money.
I hope that the BBC will pay attention. I have had this opportunity to raise the matter, and perhaps that will have some modest impact. As I was sitting here I e-mailed Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, and I hope that others might be moved to do the same.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am not sure that e-mailing from the Chamber is any more in order than the House breaking into "While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night", but in the spirit of Christmas we will let it go.
A number of hon. Members have paid tribute to the work of the emergency services, which will be working over the Christmas and new year period. So far, everybody who has referred to them has spoken of the fire, police and ambulance services. It pains me slightly that I have to remind the House that there is a fourth emergency service, the coastguard, which will also be on duty as we tuck into our turkey with the trimmings on Christmas day. It provides cover 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
That status as a forgotten emergency service vexes me somewhat, because the recent history of the coastguard service has not been happy. Last year, it came to the point at which members of the coastguard staff went on strike for the first time in their history. I know that that caused many of them real anxiety, because they see themselves as having a vocation and being there to provide a very important service for those of us who live in coastal and island communities and use the sea, either for leisure or our living. They were forced into that position because their pay and conditions had fallen behind those of comparable workers in other emergency services to such an extent that in the past few years the most junior grades have had to have pay settlements imposed on them, because otherwise their pay would have fallen foul of the minimum wage legislation. That is what we are paying the watch assistants, who are responsible for some of the most important, detailed and stressful work available to coastguards.
That is little short of a disgrace, but worse we have subsequently discovered from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's 2008-09 annual report that the same senior management and board members who insisted that the increase for watch officers and watch assistants could not go above the 2 per cent. ceiling set by the Government for public sector pay were in fact awarding themselves increases of, on average, 15 per cent. The chief executive of the MCA saw his wage increase from £127,000 per annum in 2007-08 to £137,000 in 2008-09. That adds insult to injury for very dedicated people who provide a crucial service, and highlights how the MCA has lost sight of its core functions and the sort of leadership that it needs and that is valued in constituencies such as mine. The morale of staff and many watch officers is through the floor, which can be seen from the turnover of staff. If I have a hope for the new year, it is that somebody will take control of the agency and introduce proposals that will allow the staff to be paid a wage that truly reflects the value of their work.
In my constituency, there is growing concern about the Government's proposals for changes to the furnished holiday lettings rules. I hope the House will bear with me because the matter involves a fairly detailed piece of tax legislation-in all my years as a solicitor, I was never particularly fond of tax law, but it is important. At the moment, people who offer property as a furnished holiday let are entitled to a particular set of advantages under the furnished holiday lettings rules: any losses they incur can be treated as a trading loss and set against other income; capital allowances can be claimed on furniture and furnishings; any capital gain made on the disposal of furnished holiday letting property can be rolled over; and the deemed capital gain on the gift of a furnished holiday letting property can be held over.
The proposal is that furnished holiday lettings should be treated the same as ordinary let accommodation, which is to say that they will be treated as a furnished or unfurnished long let. Those who hold the advantage would make the case that they do more than just provide a furnished property. They would say that they provide laundry services, crockery and the full range of other services on a weekly or fortnightly basis, and that that sets them apart from those who provide normal let accommodation.
The matter is of particular importance to many in my constituency, because many who are engaged in letting the furnished holiday lets I have described are farmers. For as long as I can remember, we have been telling farmers that they need to diversify and find new ways of using their assets. Indeed, over the years, we have seen a massive decrease in the number of farm workers and the need for tied accommodation in farm cottages has also diminished, so for many farmers holiday letting has been an obvious diversification, and they have taken it on with great enthusiasm. They are now having the rug pulled out from under their feet, at a time when margins for farmers are already very tight.
The problem for a constituency such as mine is that if these properties are to be taken off the letting market, all the other tourist-dependent businesses-arts and crafts, food and beverage, and tour buses-that rely on tourists coming to Orkney and Shetland and staying locally will suffer the knock-on effects. I hope that the Treasury will see sense. I cannot believe that the measure will provide a massive tax take for the Government, but it will have a significant impact on some of the most economically fragile communities in the country.
I am mindful of the pressures of time and, although there are other matters about which I would have liked to speak, I shall refrain from doing so in order to allow the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) an opportunity to have his say. I wish all hon. Members present the very best for the festive season. Today is a particularly welcome occasion, because it is not often that I can say in December that I look forward to escaping the cold blast of London weather for the much more temperate climate of the northern isles. Other hon. Members have suggested that we should come and see their constituencies as we rush headlong towards the shortest day. It is very difficult to see much in my constituency at this time of year, as we only have about six hours of full daylight, but it is worth seeing in any event. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or any other hon. Member would be more than welcome.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): May I start by thanking the two previous contributors for reducing the time of their speeches? I was amazed by the extraordinary story that the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) told about the BBC, and if it had not come from him I would have doubted that it was true. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made two powerful points, but I was unaware of his first point, and I hope that that situation is sorted out. One of the wonderful things about sitting in this Chamber is learning the things that matter. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) also spoke powerfully about the need to reform Parliament, and that is an issue that I wish to address tonight.
It would be wrong of me not to thank our armed forces who are serving overseas at the moment, especially those in Afghanistan. I declare a personal interest in that, and for the parents of officers serving abroad this is a particularly difficult time. I pay tribute to all our armed forces.
I would like to extend that thanks to the Deputy Leader of the House, who is a genuine and well-respected Member, but unfortunately she is sitting on the Treasury Bench tonight, and I am not a happy bunny. We need to reform this House, we need more democracy and we need to bring power back to Parliament. However, over the last few weeks the Government have been doing the reverse. The Executive have been taking more and more power away from this House and reducing the time for debate.
In particular, I want to talk about private Members' Bills. Earlier today I had the pleasure of sitting here while 18 private Members' Bills received their First Reading. The Bills cover a range of very important issues: the Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants Etc.) Bill, the Anti-slavery Day Bill, to which I am-I believe-a signatory, the Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill, which I could not get my name on because it was so popular, and the European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill, which I did manage to get my name on.
The problem is that at the moment we do not know if any of those Bills will even get debated. I listened with amazement as Members chose the dates for Second Reading; in fact, one Member chose tomorrow. The problem for Members is that the Government have failed to bring forward the days on which private Members' Bills are to be heard in the House. Standing Orders do not ask that the Executive might perhaps bring forward those days; it is a requirement that the Executive bring forward 13 days in the Session when private Members' Bills have precedence over Government business. That is to protect Back Benchers so that they have a right at least to get a hearing for issues and Bills about which they really care. No such naming of the 13 days has occurred. It is unprecedented in parliamentary history for private Members' Bills to be presented to the House when the dates on which they are to get their Second Reading have not been heard.
You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Government have been trying to alter Standing Orders every night for what seems like the past month. Every night hon.
Members have objected to the motion, and it is just possible that the motion will be objected to this evening as well. The ridiculous situation is that the Government are trying to change Standing Orders to reduce the length of time that Members have to discuss private Members' Bills, without having a debate on changing them. Standing Orders are here to protect this Parliament. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said, the Executive already have too much power, and if they are to take away some of the rights of Back Benchers by amending Standing Orders, the very least that the Government could do is have a debate. I have not heard one reason why we should amend Standing Orders.
I would be delighted if the Deputy Leader of the House could get up at the end of the debate and say, "We'll have those 13 days, and table a motion on the first day back." However, at the moment, we have a ridiculous situation in which Members are having to guess when they can have a Second Reading. Of course, if the days are different Members can put their dates back, but they cannot bring them forward. From the beginning of January 13 Fridays, which would not interfere with recess dates, are available, on which those private Members' Bills could be debated. The Government are just being arrogant and stubborn in not allowing those 13 days.
This is the first time in five years that I have spoken in such an Adjournment debate, and I would like to mention a couple of things about my constituency. In my constituency unemployment is more than double what it was in 1997. In my constituency a secondary school has been demolished and not replaced. The Government are creating 52,000 new homes in north Northamptonshire. The police force in my constituency has one of the worst ratios of police officers to population in the country.
Worst of all, my constituency does not have a hospital. My constituents have to go to Kettering or Northampton general hospital, but the hospitals there are overcrowded and cannot deal with my constituents adequately. In fact, Kettering was, unfortunately, named as one of seven hospitals that have had a higher standard mortality rate than the national average for five years. What we need in Wellingborough is our own hospital, but-can you believe it, Mr. Deputy Speaker?-this Government have closed the hospital out-patient facility in my constituency and moved it. Where do you think they have moved it to? They have moved it to the marginal Labour constituency of Corby. The Government should be ashamed of themselves. We need a hospital in Wellingborough.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I take this opportunity to thank all Members who have made contributions today? I give particular thanks to those Members who have said that they are stepping down at the next general election. Despite the time limit on speeches, I felt that all Members were able to get in all the points that, had there not been a time limit, they would probably have taken longer to say, but probably without making any further points.
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