Sir George winds up Whitsun Adjournment debate for Opposition
25 May 2000
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): We have had a debate in the best tradition of the House, with a wide range of themes. If there was one theme that ran through quite a few of the speeches, it was the theme of the environment. However, I think that what a wider public would notice, if they had followed the debate, was, first, the sheer range of different problems with which hon. Members have to get abreast; secondly, the detail that hon. Members go into to assist their constituents--the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was a good example of that; and, thirdly, the amount of technical knowledge that we have to acquire if we are to do battle on equal terms with the Government. I think that those qualities came through the whole of our debate today.
The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) spoke movingly about the consequences of alcoholism in relation to employment, marital breakdown, child abuse, unwanted pregnancies and accidents, and he pressed the Government for a strategy. I think that we would all endorse that.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West also mentioned, as did some other hon. Members, mobile telephone masts. Let me mention in passing the fact that, last month, the Conservative party came up with a policy changing the terms of trade towards the planning authority and the residents, and away from the providers of telephone masts. It sounds as if that policy would have a lot of support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) made the case for fines for straying off flight paths--fines for pilots who go off-message. He made the point that the regulations already exist. Of course, the principle of fining airlines for noisy aircraft has already been conceded, and the fines suggested by my hon. Friend would be a logical extension.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Chester's Croft, where his constituents do not get compensation because they live in mobile homes, as opposed to permanent homes. Again, it seems that progress is being made, but rather slowly--the Minister may have some good news on that. My hon. Friend also mentioned a road. It sounded familiar; in the previous Government, it may have been one of the roads that was in my programme. If it has dropped out, well, the responsibility lies elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) spoke rather movingly about our railway heritage. I pay tribute to the work of Worth Valley. I think that that was the setting for "The Railway Children", which is how most of us have come across it. The hon. Member reminded us about the age of steam. She also mentioned that she was looking for temporary storage space for some rolling stock. It just occurred to me that the millennium dome might possibly be able to help.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), my neighbour, spoke about modernisation, which is a very topical issue. As a member of the Modernisation Committee, I can say that it is an issue with which we are grappling at the moment. I shall make one or two points in passing. First, whatever hon. Members think about the conditions in this Parliament, they are infinitely better than conditions in previous Parliaments.

Secondly--looking round the Chamber--I do not think that anyone has been kept out of their bed later and more often than me, and I have been kept out of my bed by Labour Members and Liberal Democrat Members. It is somewhat paradoxical that it is Members from those parties who are now urging me and my colleagues to be more restrained.

Thirdly, it is not only a matter for the Opposition: the Government have a role to play, in the size of the legislative programme, the complexity of the legislative programme and the quality of the drafting.

Finally, one has to be careful, under cover of making this place more civilised and more user-friendly, not to shift the terms of trade even further in favour of the Government and against Parliament. If anything, the terms of trade need to be shifted back.

On electronic voting, I declare that I am not a supporter. In the most recent survey, the most popular method of voting was the one that we have now. I should be surprised if opinions had changed enormously since then.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) spoke movingly of Mr. Whittaker being denied a General Service Medal because he was not in an active service area. The hon. Gentleman reminded us that, even when this country is not directly involved, our soldiers and armed forces are at risk. He listed the number of fatalities in conflicts in which we were not a direct party, but in which, sadly, members of the armed services were killed. He reminded us of the debt that we all owe to those who are in the services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) spoke about asylum seekers and made a very reasoned case for looking rather carefully at the 10 per cent. of asylum seekers who come from countries that are actually free of persecution, because they are members of the Council of Europe. The pressure on his local authority and on the Home Office would be less if that 10 per cent. were not part of the queue.

My hon. Friend also referred to a key appeal that is about to take place in the House of Lords. I am sure that the Government will be watching that very carefully, because, if the case goes in favour of the Roma, there are very wide implications indeed. My hon. Friend then went from the macro to the micro by explaining the consequences in his constituency of the increased number of asylum seekers who have arrived and the impact on residents and the wider economy.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) was one of a number of Members to mention problems involving telephone masts, particularly when they are sited close to schools. Many schools have welcomed the income that they derive from having those masts, although they may be reconsidering that. The hon. Gentleman made a sound case for more research and for caution in the mean time. He expressed concern about the future of Ford and the viability of a stand-alone engine plant. I hope that his fears are unfounded.

The hon. Gentleman also pointed out that opinions about modernising can change. The plea from the hon. Member for Winchester was sandwiched between speeches from the wife and the son of one of the Members of Parliament who kept me out of my bed more often than almost any other--Bob Cryer. The hon. Gentleman implied that the Conservative party had conspired to close huge sections of British industry to reduce the number of trade unions and weaken our political opponents. That is a rather simplistic approach to the changes in industry in this country. It was containerisation that led to the closure of the docks. The present Government face the same challenge as the previous one in trying to respond to changes in patterns of industry and to provide new jobs when jobs have been lost.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made the most modest request of the debate, asking for a left filter at a traffic light.

Mr. Stunell: A right filter.

Sir George Young: I am sorry. If it is a right filter, I am certainly able to support the hon. Gentleman. He also reminded the House of our duties as Members of Parliament. We should not lose sight of that when we talk about the related issues of our conditions and working hours. He pointed out that it was up to the House to reclaim from the Executive some of the powers that we have lost. I certainly endorse that. Government Back Benchers are the only ones who can do that. The Opposition cannot reclaim powers from the Government on their own. Government Back Benchers have a heavy responsibility if we want to get the terms of trade back.

I agree entirely with what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said about buses. They are the dark horse in the public transport debate. They can do most of what light railways can do, but at a fraction of the cost. I agree entirely with what she said about a constructive partnership between local authorities and bus companies to provide a better service. In my experience, information about buses is often missing. People would like to go by bus, but they do not always have sufficient information about where buses run and at what times.

I was interested to hear what the hon. Lady said about the working families tax credit. There have been problems in my constituency with the transition from social security payments to payment by employers. One or two people in my constituency have been without funds for some time. I hope that those transitional problems will be resolved.

I hope that we can have a full debate on the important White Paper on waste that was published today. Like the hon. Lady, I have been impressed by the sheer volume of correspondence about the debt campaign. The postcards keep rolling in month after month. That has an impact on Members of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) spoke about his local wildlife trust, its broad base of support in his constituency and the pioneering work of Miss Elliot. He focused on the crucial interface between agriculture and conservation. Farmers are often the best conservers, as long as they have the income with which to do it. The current debate centres on what to do about conservation when farm incomes fall. He said that there was a case for the Government to step in on conservation grounds to ensure that farmers were able to look after the heritage.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who would normally wind up this debate, but is attending an important family occasion. We were sorry to hear about the redundancies at ALSTOM. I hope that it can win fresh contracts elsewhere. The weak euro means that we must do all that we can to ensure that we are competitive in other areas by remaining deregulated, having low taxes and attracting inward investment. I was interested to hear about the single regeneration budget bid. That innovation of the previous Government was not wholeheartedly welcomed at the time by the Labour party, but I gather that it has now been embraced.

I am not sure whether the Minister took the precaution of having something to eat before we started business questions. When the hon. Member for Stafford started talking about the National Culinary Centre, I realised that that was the closest to nutrition that I was going to get for some time. We hope that his constituency is successful in establishing that important new institution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) reminded us of the Conservative party's success in the recent local elections and the transformation that is now taking place in Southend as a result. He reminded us of the work of the RNLI, which gets no help from the Government, not because the Government refuse to give help, but because the RNLI has not asked for help and does not want any. He reminded us that prevention is better than rescue. My hon. Friend declared himself to be an enemy of mobile phones, particularly on trains, and spoke about phone masts, as did other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire has obviously done an enormous amount of research on junk mail. My experience is that writing to the mail preference service solves most of the problems, although there are still problems from Nigerian citizens who write to Members of Parliament asking for details of our bank accounts so that they can expatriate some funds that they have somehow accrued and in return pass on a small percentage to us. It is, of course, a scam. All that they want is details of our bank accounts so that they can access them. I hope that there can be a response to the problem that the hon. Gentleman raised. He has done a service just by publicising it, because that will alert more people to the risks of subscribing. Junk faxes have virtually stopped since the law was changed. At the beginning of this Parliament, one found in one's office a stream of faxes inviting one to buy a holiday or fax paper or to recruit staff. That has virtually stopped, but junk e-mail is becoming slightly more of an issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) referred to the problem of mobile phone masts and to rail freight depots. We all want more goods to be transported on the railways, but there is a problem with depots and of an increase in rail traffic at night. We need to think that through. My hon. Friend mentioned also the suburbs; the suburbs are, after all, where most people live, and one should not ignore their needs by focusing too much on inner cities and rural areas.

There was a moving speech from the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) about compensation for miners from the coal industry and I hope that the bureaucratic process can be speeded up. The Minister is probably closer to that problem than anyone else, and will have sympathy with it.

The hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) mentioned pockets of deprivation. When I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment responding to debates, there was a "Yes, Minister" reply which said that a well-resourced authority ought to be able to cope with pockets of deprivation, and that resources were focused on those areas with lots of pockets of deprivation. No doubt that response is still on the wordprocessor at the DETR and will be wheeled out. The hon. Gentleman's comments on respect for authority struck a chord with all of us.

This may be the last Whitsun Adjournment debate of this Parliament. As we go away, politics is beginning to get more exciting. I hope that the Minister will not be distressed if I say that, recently, we have seen some fumbled responses from the Government to some of the initiatives from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition--they have been rather like a rabbit in the headlights.

We go away without having time to debate a number of early-day motions. Eleven Labour Members have signed an early-day motion on Britain's competitiveness, expressing concern at the level of sterling. Fifteen have signed an early-day motion critical of the Home Secretary's decision to admit Mike Tyson. Ninety Labour Back Benchers have signed an early-day motion on National Air Traffic Services, urging the Government to reconsider. More than 50 Labour Back Benchers have signed an early-day motion on the millennium dome.

I see before me a dispirited and demoralised party that is about to go on a recess that it desperately needs, confronted by a reinvigorated and confident Opposition, greatly encouraged by our success in the local elections. We, too, will return from our recess even more invigorated.

On behalf of the Opposition, I say to the occupants of the Chair, the servants of the House and all hon. Members that I hope that they have a well-earned rest.

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