Speeches and parliamentary questions in the House of Commons
While speaking in the chamber of the House is a high profile activity for an MP, much other work is done elsewhere, in committee, as well as a large casework load for constituents.
18/11/04 Hunting Bill [18 Nov 2004]
16/11/04 Light Rail Schemes
08/11/04 Regional Referendums [8 Nov 2004]
01/11/04 Gambling Bill [1 Nov 2004]
20/07/04 Passenger Transport Authorities
22/06/04 Electoral System [22 Jun 2004]
16/06/04 NHS drug treatment
24/03/04 European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill
03/03/04 Call Centres (Offshoring)
25/02/04 Second Chamber
25/02/04 Marks and Spencer
11/02/04 Powers of Devolved Assemblies
30/01/04 Work Permits
13/01/04 Post Office Closures
12/01/04 Housing Bill
04/12/03 Lloyds TSB call centre closure
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): On the question of possible challenges in court to the Bill once it is enacted, what legal advice has my right hon. Friend received as to whether such challenges would be more or less likely to succeed if the Bill were to be further complicated by amendments at this late stage?
Alun Michael: I am advised that the Bill is sound and secure with or without any such changes. My hon. Friend can have full confidence in that.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): My right hon. Friend will know that the Tyne and Wear Metro system continues to enjoy huge public support. It deserves to be improved and modernised to meet the transport needs of the 21st century. However, is he aware that, like other transport systems, it continues to be abused by the minority of people who are fare dodgers? When will he be in a position to announce his review of the maximum penalty fare, which I understand has been stuck at £10 since 1989?
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I am well aware of the Tyne and Wear Metro - I visited it earlier this year - which has been very successful. I agree that, at today's prices, £10 for a penalty fare is a very small sum, especially as a person who dodges fares can save rather more than that very quickly. The Department has looked at this matter and I am strongly of the view that we need to increase the penalty fares. I hope to have something to say on this in the not too distant future.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on his work on this over the years. His quest to extend democracy is an honourable one, and he should be congratulated on it.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as recently as this morning, constituents have contacted me to ask for more democratic control of local services privatised by the Conservatives? Is not there still a case for extending democracy to the regions and localities, and can we look for other ways of doing that?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind personal remarks. I noted that, immediately after the result was announced, even the no campaign was saying, "We still need to find ways to deal with this issue", and that has continued. I have even heard voices calling for national conventions, which is precisely what happened in Scotland and Wales. I do not support that, but I would sooner hear what people have to say about it. The no campaigners have started to wonder whether they have missed an opportunity. They voted against it, but now they are saying, "Can we have something, albeit different, after all?" I have to ask whether they are whistling in the wind.
We will continue to reform the local government structure. We will devolve more powers downwards by strengthening regional development agencies, regional government and assemblies. For the moment, that will have to be the way forward for the North-East.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Is the Secretary of State aware that these days, children have access to the internet and, through computer games, to gratuitous violence in the most graphic sense, in the privacy of their own rooms? Does she really think that they will be protected by banning the penny arcade?
Tessa Jowell: We are not banning the penny arcade in this Bill and yes, we do have to address the risks that children face, but not by taking disproportionate action in respect of matters for which there is no evidence of harm.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Will my right hon. Friend clarify the matter? If the Electoral Commission finds that there are problems with postal ballots in a region, will that rule out postal ballots in all three regions or only the region that has the problem?
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend asks a very pertinent question. As he will know, his region - the North-East region - probably has the greatest experience of all-postal balloting. Most authorities have adopted it and his authority of Gateshead has been a pioneer in showing in one of the earliest pilots the capability of doubling participation. It has sustained high levels of participation in subsequent pilots. Therefore, experience in the North-East is generally overwhelmingly positive, and I have received very few indications of anxieties from North-East authorities about potential problems. If there are concerns, it is right to address them wherever they are rather than adopting a blanket approach that would not be appropriate in the circumstances.
Mr. Clelland: We may as well be honest about these things, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, and it is also true that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) expressed reservations about the referendum. Of course there is a division of opinion in some areas of the north-west, and in Yorkshire, as we have heard today. However, let me make it crystal clear that no such divisions are apparent in the North-East, where we are only too keen to pass the orders and get on with authorising the yes and no campaigns, setting them in motion and holding the referendum.
Mr. Jenkin: If the referendum in the North-East goes ahead, we shall see how the people vote there, what the turnout is and whether people really want an elected regional assembly.
Mr. Clelland: Is my hon. Friend as curious as I am about why those who are opposed to regional government are so opposed to the referendum? Given that they are so convinced of their case that regional government is not popular in their area, one would have thought that they would welcome the referendum to put the matter to bed once and for all.
Tony Lloyd: I would hope that that is the nature of democracy, but we all know that those who speak the language of democracy but use the procedures of this place to try to prevent the public from having the right to decide are no democrats. They do a great disservice.
Not that many years ago, when I came into Parliament, there were still a significant number of Conservative Members of Parliament in the north-west. The Labour party in my region was berated from the Conservative Front Bench. There are disagreements among members of the north-west parliamentary Labour party, but at least there are enough of us to have agreement and disagreement. There are no longer enough Tories from the north-west even to have agreement on these issues. The Tory party in the north-west was massively distrusted because of the Thatcherite legacy, particularly because the Thatcherite Government were identified as government of the north by the South-East, and it will be many, many years before the Tory party is considered a respectable voice for the north-west.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I support my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) in his pleas to the Minister to give passenger transport authorities more power over private local bus companies. Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that the Go-Ahead group and its subsidiary, Go North East, propose severely to curtail bus services in west and central Gateshead in my constituency? Will he please look at that as a matter of urgency? Surely private bus companies ought to be subject to the same kind of public service agreements as local authorities and other public bodies, so that people who use the services can have some influence over them.
Mr. McNulty: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments about the rail review and what we have done with PTEs. I was recently up in Newcastle, which I think is fairly close to Gateshead, to discuss a range of matters with Nexus. If I need to return or to speak to the firm down in London about specific aspects of bus services, I will be more than happy to do so.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): My hon. Friend will have heard the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman rubbish the Electoral Commission on the question of extending all-postal votes to local government elections. He derided the Electoral Commission on the question of witness statements. Yet the Opposition motion invites the House to criticise the Government for acting against the advice of the Electoral Commission. Does that not demonstrate the nonsense of the motion and the usual doublespeak of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan)?
Mr. Leslie: I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman directly of hypocrisy, but he has had difficulty with consistency in his arguments. I think that he tripped up about 10 minutes into his speech and fell into saying that he did not really care what the Electoral Commission said. I have a feeling that that quotation will be around his neck for some time.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): My right hon. Friend is aware that advances in medical science mean that life-threatening diseases can be kept at bay by the use of drugs, rather than unpleasant and invasive treatments such as chemotherapy. He is also aware that those drugs are often very expensive and are not provided free on the national health service. Will he undertake to look into the matter and see what more might be done to assist people on modest incomes who need drug treatment in order to fight diseases such as cancer?
The Prime Minister: The point that my hon. Friend makes is one of the reasons why we introduced the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in order to evaluate drugs and say whether they should be available on NHS prescription. By and large, it does an excellent job of work. He is right, however, that drugs are continually coming on to the market that can improve people's conditions. That is one of the reasons why we have been able to reduce cardiac deaths, for example, by 20 per cent., through the use of statins. It is best that, in the end, these decisions are made by the institute, but we certainly make sure that the funding is available when it decides that a drug should be made generally available.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): The hon. Gentleman referred in his opening remarks to incidents of fraud. Would he like to give some examples of where such incidents have taken place, because as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) pointed out earlier, in Gateshead council, where the ballot took place without the need for witness signatures, there was no evidence whatever of fraud. On the other hand, in Newcastle council, where the witness signature was required, 6,000 people were disfranchised because of the lack of a witness signature. Does he think that that is fair?
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman because I know that he has many responsibilities in the House, but I do not think that he took part in the earlier debates on this matter. Had he done so, he would be aware that I have referred at great length to the examples of fraud given by the noble Lord Greaves, not just on one but on several occasions when the matter was debated in another place. I have incorporated my concerns, which are set out fully by the Electoral Commission in its report, in my various speeches, so I respectfully refer the hon. Gentleman to what the Lord Greaves has said. The main concerns about fraud were in the north-west. The Electoral Commission says that one of its concerns about the north-west is that possible prosecutions for fraud might coincide with the period of these elections; that has been one of the main reasons why it is not prepared to approve the north-west as a pilot area.
Mr. Clelland: My hon. Friend the Minister is right to resist the amendments, especially in light of the damage that has already been done to the Bill by the other House. The amendment requiring witness signatures, which will disfranchise thousands of people - mainly the elderly and those with communication difficulties - has been forced on the Government because the other place is using up time which, because of the approaching elections, this House unfortunately does not have, in order to defeat the Bill. Last week, the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister interviewed manufacturers of electoral materials who are telling the Government that time is running out in terms of producing those materials. The House of Lords is using that situation to force amendments on a reluctant Government.
Much comment has been made about the unelected House having undue influence over a matter relating to elections and electors' rights. Some might say that that makes the case for an elected House stronger. I would argue against that, because one can imagine the situation if these decisions were being made by an elected House. It would be much more difficult for this House to get anything through at all - we would have this legislative gridlock time after time. The Government are right to go back to the drawing board on the constitution of the second Chamber. [Interruption.] One of my hon. Friends says, "Abolish them." I am becoming more attracted to that idea as the days go by. We need to consider the powers of the House of the Lords before we start to consider who should sit and exercise them. That is what should have been done in the first place. I hope that we will take this opportunity to do it and that we do not get into this ridiculous situation again.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Is my hon. Friend aware that Lloyds TSB is proposing to close a call centre in my constituency with a loss of 1,000 jobs barely two years after the call centre was opened with a fanfare of trumpets and a promise from the chairman that they would be long-term sustainable jobs? Does he think that Lloyds TSB should have some loyalty to this country and its employees? If it and other companies are not going to be loyal to this country, that will fall at the Government's door, as he said. It is not good enough for Ministers to say that this is a global economy. With thousands of jobs under threat and others haemorrhaging from this country as a result of offshoring, surely the Government have to do something.
Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North): Both my hon. Friend and I will listen with great interest to the Minister's comments. I am aware of the decision taken by Lloyds TSB. It must take account of the impact that that will have on its customer base if customers are not happy with the work going to China, India or wherever. If they are not happy that it is being offshored, they have the opportunity to move their accounts elsewhere, which would be to the overall detriment of Lloyds TSB.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): What would be the point of Jobcentre Plus, the learning and skills councils or anyone else encouraging people to take up jobs in call centres, for instance, when the evidence shows that there is absolutely no security of employment?
The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms): I do not think that that is the position. As I have said, the number of people working in call centres in the UK continues to increase. We shall see what the study that we have commissioned says when it reports at the end of April, but we are determined to do what we can to work for the competitiveness of the UK call centre industry in the competitive conditions in which it operates. At the moment, around 60 per cent. of jobseeker's allowance claimants leave the register within three months of joining it and 80 per cent. leave within six months. We have the lowest levels of unemployment in the UK that we have seen for three decades or so.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Marks and Spencer opened its first-ever Lifestyle store in Gateshead yesterday, creating 210 jobs? We welcome that further demonstration of confidence in the North-East by Marks and Spencer, but, as my right hon. Friend knows, what the region desperately needs is more investment in research and development, and the kind of skilled jobs that often result from Government procurement programmes. We also eagerly await the promised redistribution of 20,000 civil service jobs away from the south-east and into the regions. I acknowledge the tremendous progress that has been made in the creation of employment and reduction of unemployment in my region under my right hon. Friend's Government, but what further progress can we hope to see in the coming months and years?
The Prime Minister: I think that it is essential first to back the regional development agency, One NorthEast, which, as my hon. Friend knows, is making precisely that sort of effort to bring manufacturing and other industry into the area, and also ensuring that we have the right skills base there. That is immensely important. The second essential thing, as my hon. Friend implied, is to go on running the economy in an effective and stable way so that we have high levels of employment and low levels of unemployment. He will know, as I do, that in the North-East any political debate of 15 or 20 years ago would have centred on the huge levels of unemployment. It is a tribute, surely, to the management of the economy under this Chancellor, and to this Government's record, that we have seen in the past seven years dramatic reductions in unemployment, dramatic rises in employment and the best-run economy of any major industrialised country.
[Mr Curry is quoting reports that say devolved assemblies will not have powers to effect change.]
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman, having reminded himself of those remarks, would like to confirm that that is also his view. Was it not he on the Radio Four "Any Questions?" programme who said that if these bodies had more power he would be more sympathetic?
Mr. Curry: If the bodies had significant power, at least there would be a sensible debate about how Britain was managed. I have said that repeatedly. What we do not have is a proposition, or any likely proposition, that is anything other than a token gesture to regional assemblies on the basis of an entirely false premise. So this debate is an entirely false one. People are being asked to vote for a pig in a poke that will not work. If I have to choose between that and devolving power closer to people in their own communities, giving them the ability to grasp real powers locally through representative government, I would make that choice. That is a better choice for the United Kingdom.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what conditions relate to the issuing of work permits to nationals of countries in the Indian sub-continent. 
Beverley Hughes: There are no specific conditions applied through the work permit arrangements in respect of India or any other individual country. Work permits are issued to foreign nationals to come to work in the UK where an application by a UK employer has met the published criteria.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what conditions relate to the issuing of visas to nationals of countries in the Indian sub-continent. 
Mr. Mullin: All entry clearance applications are considered against the relevant requirements of the United Kingdom's Immigration Rules which state that applicants must satisfy an Entry Clearance Officer, on the balance of probabilities, that they meet the requirements of these Rules in the category that they apply. The Rules are applied equally throughout the world, regardless of the nationality of an applicant or the country in which the application is made.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he expects to reply to the letter from the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge of 8 January. 
Mr. Mullin: I replied to my hon. Friend's letter of 8 January on 29 January, explaining the delay, advising that the matters he raised were the responsibility of the Home Office and that I had forwarded his letter to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office (Beverly Hughes) with a request that it be replied to urgently.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge):
When I read the motion on the Order Paper, I agreed with almost all of it, apart - given that my regional Whip, the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp), is on the Front Bench - from the phrase "condemns the Government", which I could never do. However, I am afraid to disappoint Opposition Members, as I shall not join them in the Lobby. Although I agree with the wording of the motion, it is born of the Opposition's cynicism and opportunism. After 18 years in government, when they closed 3,500 post offices, they have the cheek to talk about breathtaking double standards and crocodile tears, as the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) put it.
I object to the number of closures in my Tyne Bridge constituency. Under the programme, no fewer than nine of our 21 post offices are scheduled for closure, three in Newcastle and six in Gateshead. All the indicators show that my constituency is one of the most deprived in the country, and the least worthy of such a blow. I am not suggesting that the service should not be rationalised by any means. Some people are voting with their feet and have found alternative ways of collecting pensions, welfare benefits and so on. That trend will continue. More and more pensioners, for example, will choose to have their pensions paid into their bank accounts because their wages and salaries were paid in that way. I therefore accept the need for rationalisation in some instances, but the closure of nine of the 21 sub-post offices in Tyne Bridge is excessive, and does not take sufficient account of the terrain.
The Post Office has told me that its staff walk the areas around post offices before making a decision about closure. If they did so in Tyne Bridge, they would have to be pretty fit. One post office is the aptly named Deckham hill - whatever direction people walk in they go up and down very steep inclines indeed. The people who rely on post office services are generally elderly or infirm, or are mothers pushing prams, and will find access very difficult indeed.
In the case of another post office, the Dun Cow, which serves the Dunston hill area of my constituency, 1,200 local residents signed a petition against its closure. I pay tribute to the Labour councillors in the area who kept the people so well informed and gathered the names on the petition. Similarly, in Newcastle, another 1,200 people signed petitions against recently announced post office closures, which will be a devastating blow to local people and raise concerns about more closures in the future.
It appears that not enough account is taken of future development. The Low Teams post office in my constituency is scheduled for closure on the basis that there has been some demolition in the area. However, new development is taking place to replace the demolition. New houses are being built on the riverside in the former garden festival site and around the post office itself. That does not seem to be taken into account by the Post Office. A similar argument applies to the Armstrong Road and West Benwell post offices in Newcastle, in an area known as the "going for growth" area of Newcastle, where substantial redevelopment is planned.
Mrs. Calton: Perhaps I can be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. I have a letter from the chief executive of the Post Office, who tells me clearly that he believes that
"extensive modelling and analysis of an area including what published plans the local authority might have for the area"
are included in the consultation process. In fact, as the hon. Gentleman knows from his experience and as I know from mine, that does not seem to be happening. Does he think that the top levels of the Post Office may not know what the intermediate levels of the Post Office are doing?
Mr. Clelland: That may well be the case. My experience would bear that out. I do not believe that the Post Office could have investigated in the way that it says it has and come to the conclusion that it reached.
There is a rule that sub-post offices in the most deprived areas should not be closed if there is not an alternative within half a mile. However, in the case of the Armstrong Road and West Benwell post offices, which I mentioned earlier, the Post Office argued that if both are closed at once, that rule does not apply. I have taken the matter up with the Minister, who I am pleased to say supports me. I understand that the matter will be re-examined. I had a letter from the Minister in December, in which he writes that
"there would still be four alternative offices within one mile of West Benwell and three within one mile of Armstrong Road, all with good public transport access and concessionary fares."
Concessionary fares are just that: they are not free. People still have to pay, and concessionary fares do not apply to all those who use the post office services. Moreover, one mile is an awfully long way to walk in the terrain that I described earlier. The Minister told me, and he repeated today, that some postmasters are leaving the system owing to a lack of business. That may be true in some cases, but not in all. Some retirements are taking place, but in many cases, such as that of the Dun Cow post office in Dunston, there is no lack of business, with 1,200 people in the immediate vicinity asking for it to be kept open. Some postmasters are retiring, but many are being bought out by the sweeteners being offered by Post Office Ltd.
Despite the changes that are undoubtedly taking place - I accept that changes are taking place - the sub-post offices in Tyne Bridge remain an important and necessary service for thousands of my constituents. The proposed closure of almost half the total outlets in Tyne Bridge is excessive and will cause hardship. It should be reconsidered by the Post Office, whose duty to run an efficient business should not undermine the very services that it exists to provide.6.9 p.m.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Part 3 of the Bill will be very much welcomed, not least by local authorities such as Gateshead council, which has long campaigned for a system of licensing private landlords. The Bill refers to areas of low housing demand. Is my right hon. Friend aware that that means areas that have become run-down because of neglect, or sometimes because of the deliberate policy of absentee landlords who let to antisocial and sometimes criminal elements to reduce property values and build up their empires? In the meantime, decent people are either driven out or made subject to the criminal racist behaviour of such people. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the Bill will give local authorities all the powers that they need to put an end to that cancer in some of our urban areas?
Keith Hill: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am aware that there are serious issues concerning antisocial behaviour and poor housing conditions as a result of abandonment in his constituency, and in a number of other local authority areas in the north of England and the midlands. That is why we are determined to take action through the Bill to curb the activities of a rogue element by introducing much needed reforms to both the private rented sector and the owner-occupied sector. The Bill will also introduce provision for social housing where action is needed, covering England and Wales.
Mr. Hain: I well understand my hon. Friend's concern about any job losses in his constituency and I know that there will be an opportunity to consider the matter in a debate in Westminster Hall next Wednesday. We obviously should fight locally, as local Members, against any job losses but we are subject to a whirlwind of global pressures in which the outsourcing of some call centre jobs is continuing. Interestingly, higher value added call centre jobs tend to stay in this country.
Reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO
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