WIND-UP: CHRISTMAS ADJOURNMENT DEBATE – 21 December 2004

Dr Julian Lewis: I do not know about you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but in among the gloom that one feels so often when looking at the general spread of news in the mass media, occasionally something glimmers through that raises at least the ghost of a smile. For me recently, it was the report originally in the Daily Mirror but picked up by the Press Association and put out on the internet. It was headed "British National Party booked black DJ for Xmas party." The report said:

"BNP members walked out of their own Christmas party – after accidentally hiring a black DJ.
A member of the far right group booked the entertainer over the phone, reports the Daily Mirror.
The BNP organiser ... admitted: 'There was a bit of a cock-up. The chap who booked him didn't realise. The DJ sounded white on the phone.' "

I have got news for them. The reason why they could not tell the difference was that the gentleman was as British as they were. That is the lighter side. Unfortunately, we pessimists always know that, to every silver lining there is a great black cloud attached. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be as horrified as me to read in the press today about the young, brilliant Muslim student – someone engaged in doctoral studies at university – who had the misfortune to be attacked by a young thug. The attack has left him blinded and in need of care for the rest of his life.

With all the talk that we have had about war and   peace, disruption and terrorism, we would all agree that we will achieve satisfactory outcomes to conflicts that are waged abroad only when we show our communities at home that it is how they behave and their character, not their origins, that count. Something that ought to disturb all of us is the leniency of the sentence imposed on the assailant. He got a few years in jail. There are many other examples of where the police do their job and catch criminals, and the courts proceed almost on the basis that they do not accept that the concept of punishment exists. It was this law-and-order theme that struck me in the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). He is right. The whole concept of the anti-social behaviour order will fail if, when it is breached, condign punishment is not imposed.

The task that faces both the Deputy Leader of the House (Phil Woolas) and me is to sum up a, by definition, variegated debate in as seamless a way as possible. In the meantime, in limited time, we also have to try to mention every Member who contributed to the debate. Here goes. I apologise in advance if I inadvertently overlook anyone.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) talked of her attempts to bring Crossrail to Reading and she shed a sad sidelight on some of the internecine warfare in Labour politics in her constituency. I do not know the rights and wrongs of what happened to her, but I have always found her to be kind-hearted and considerate and I am sorry that she is in her present position.

The hon. Member for Derby, North (Bob Laxton) was a passionate advocate for train building in his constituency. Other contributions have told us about industrial contamination in Derbyshire, a variety of problems in South Ribble, salt mines on Merseyside, the export of jobs from Sutton and Cheam, wind farms near Brigg and Goole, night flights over Putney and a pig with a missing ear, which is apparently running around somewhere in the Christchurch constituency.

Mr Hoyle: Behind you!

Dr Lewis: I shall not look, despite the hon. Gentleman's attempts to be helpful on the question of how many ears my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Christopher Chope) possesses. At the last count, it was three.

It was a real pleasure to see the hon. Member for Bolsover (Dennis Skinner) back on top form. It was even more wonderful to hear him extolling the virtues of building a business park in his constituency. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Paul Tyler) reminded us of people who are battling illnesses at this normally joyful time of year. I know that we are all thinking about some people in that situation at this time and I would like to mention the Rev. Terry Abernethy, who is the much-loved vicar of Beaulieu; Councillor Allan Glass, who is a prominent figure on Fawley Parish Council; and Mr John Gulliver MBE, who when a teenager fought the Nazis as a Royal Navy serviceman and for many years has been the mainstay of the Totton Conservative Club in my constituency. All those people are battling serious illnesses and our thoughts are with them, as I am sure other hon. Members' thoughts are with similar people of whom they are aware.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (David Amess) touched on a wide range of injustices and the hon. Member for Tooting (Tom Cox) concentrated on a singular injustice, that of the Maxwell pensioners. The hon. Member for North Durham (Kevan Jones) went into the question of exploitative and unregulated middlemen who batten off claimants and skim off much of the money to which they are entitled. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (James Plaskitt) voiced concerns shared by many of us about changes in planning regulations that have led to unsuitable developments in towns and villages.

Many of the local campaigns and concerns that I have listed so far speak volumes for the single-member constituency system that we have. How many of those concerns would have been raised in this House if we were anonymous Members from some list system with no particular patch to look after?

The concerns that have been raised also include more widely political issues. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) talked of the catalogue of incompetence surrounding Yarl's Wood. We heard from the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) about what he regards as a culture of secrecy in affairs in his constituency. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) about prison overcrowding and from the hon. and irrepressible Member for Chorley (Lindsay Hoyle) about the naming of regiments and the importance of promoting the defence industry.

Some of the most broad political issues have also been raised, notably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Andrew Mackay), who mentioned Zimbabwe and Sudan, and my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley), who raised questions about the style and modus operandi of Ministers, to which subject I hope to return if time permits.

We heard a little bit about anniversaries, and it is worth noting that in a few days' time it will be the 25th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If we cast our mind back to the catalogue of action and reaction that flowed from that, it should give us pause to think about how unpredictable the development of international conflict and international relations can be. I am sure that if the Kremlin leaders had had the slightest inkling of what they were about to unleash when they set about that invasion in December 1979, they would have thought again.

The overriding theme, and the most concerted attack on the Government today, has been the question of Iraq. Not everyone attacked the Government on Iraq. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) was candid about the effects of the invasion and about the fact that it had turned out to be a much tougher proposition than he predicted. By contrast, his hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Alice Mahon) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Diane Abbott) remained firm in the view that they have always taken – against the invasion and its consequences.

The main theme was articulated by what may be termed a rainbow alliance, including the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (Alex Salmond) and for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price), my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) and for Southend, West (David Amess) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Edward Garnier). If there was a single theme that united those disparate Members of Parliament it was that the Government by their actions have undermined the concept of trust that must exist between a Prime Minister and a Government on the one hand and the people of the country on the other, on any issue of war and peace.

If the aim was to change the regime in Iraq, that should have been both stated and debated. Had that been the case, I suspect that many of the people in that rainbow coalition who spoke so eloquently today would have found themselves on opposite sides of the argument. I have always believed that it was right to get rid of Saddam Hussein and I do not resile from that for a moment; but it was not right to do so in a way that undermined trust in the Intelligence Services, in the Government and in the alliance of the West on which so much has depended in the past and on which so much will continue to depend in the future.

Why did that happen? Obviously, there are many factors, but I strongly suspect that the single most important one was the decision to allow the process of propaganda and spin, which had worked so well for the Government in the domestic sphere, out on to the international stage. The process was further corrupted by the use of civil servants as some sort of air-raid shelter to try to protect the Government's skin. It is not sensible to try to use a body such as the Joint Intelligence Committee – a body of impartial professionals – if one wishes to advocate something as serious as a political and military attack. Such bodies should be kept behind the scenes. The Government should be able to say, "We have taken advice from the Intelligence Services and it has led us to this or that conclusion"; they should not seek to pull those services out of the shadows and shelter behind them. The Government should certainly not then seek to tell them how to rewrite their reports.

Unelected Special Advisers, who are allowed to give orders to the professional civil service, must never again be appointed, and if there is a change of Government, and my party comes into government, they never again will be appointed.

The Hutton Inquiry showed that crucial revelations were encapsulated in vital e-mails; one from Jonathan Powell, in particular, comes to mind, but there were many others. Have the Government learned from what happened at Hutton and afterwards? I do not think that they have, or if they have, they have learned the wrong lessons. The Budd Inquiry, which reported today, emphasises the fact that a key fax is missing.

What is proposed to deal with a situation in which e-mails are key to one inquiry and a missing fax is key to another? What we have read about moves to delete automatically e-mails en masse when they are three months old, and the parliamentary Answers we have received from Departments about how many files have been shredded in the years leading up to the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act on 1 January, have serious implications not only for how government is carried out but even for the ability of future historians to follow the paper trail and find out what the Government were doing at a given time.

Let us just concentrate for a moment on what was said as a result of the Budd Report. The BBC reports that Sir Alan Budd concluded:

"I believe I have been able to establish a chain of events linking Mr Blunkett to the change in the decision on Mrs Casalme's application."

But, he said, it was

"not a straightforward matter",

because few involved in it could recall the details. Well, if there is such a bout of collective amnesia, surely it is all the more important that e-mails should be preserved and faxes should be preserved, and not deleted and shredded respectively.

The report says:

"I believe there are two broad possibilities: Mr Blunkett was seeking special help for Mrs Quinn's nanny (or) he was raising the case as an example of the poor performance of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.
I do not have direct evidence that allows me to choose between the two possibilities."

That means that even if the second possibility were the true one, we shall never know because proper records were not kept.

I think that the judge-led inquiry that my party called for would have been more sensible than the inquiry that we got, and my party certainly supports the suggestion of Alastair Graham, a distinguished retired trade unionist, that there should be a standing body for future inquiries and that membership of it should be agreed between Government and Opposition at the start of each Parliament.

I have said that I am concerned about the culture of records destruction, but I am not alone in that. The Information Commissioner is reported by the excellent Gallery News service to have said today, speaking of the Freedom of Information Act:

"The new Act of Parliament makes it very clear that to destroy records in order to prevent their disclosure becomes a criminal offence",

but he said that there was already clear guidance on the retention of e-mails contained in a code of practice from the Lord Chancellor:

"If in doubt, retain, that has been the long-standing principle of the civil service and public authorities."

We like to think in this place that we are involved in finding out everything that is available at the present time, and we like to think that whether we succeed or fail in putting one over on the Government or the Opposition, people in the future will be able to see what the truth really was. We look to the Government to treat the legislation that is coming into force on 1 January as an excuse to be more open, not as a reason to destroy the historical record.

On that happy note, I am delighted to join in the general wishes of a happy Christmas to all concerned. 
 
[The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Phil Woolas): ... I shall stay on a note of consensus and thank the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) for standing in so ably for the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald). It was typical of the hon. Member for New Forest, East to start with a condemnation of the British National Party. I know from my work in my constituency that he plays a key role, often behind the scenes, in providing information to undermine that invidious party, and I congratulate him on using this opportunity to raise the matter. I agree very strongly with him about the benefits of single Member constituencies. Recess Adjournment debates always show the House of Commons at its best, because Members speak with detailed knowledge about their local constituencies and what happens in them.]