§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]9.33 am
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
Madam Speaker, this is the last day that you will preside over the House. Having just seen the procession and the enormous number of Members who were watching it, I feel that I have the right to say that, in view of the glowing tributes that were paid to you on Wednesday, today is a very sad day for very many of us, who were privileged to be Members of the House during your speakership. For those like me, who have had a long friendship with you, Madam Speaker, you will be sadly missed. However, as colleagues said on Wednesday, we look forward to seeing you in the Palace of Westminster on many occasions in the future. I thank you for all the kindness that you have shown not only to me, but to all Members of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]
I shall speak on Cyprus, as I have often done. I chair the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Cyprus group, which has members from all the main parties. We have always campaigned for the rights of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots and for their security on the island of Cyprus. Since the Turkish invasion of the Republic of Cyprus in 1974, there have been many attempts to find an honourable solution to the continuing division and occupation of about one third of the northern part of the island.
The United Nations has issued many resolutions; I and many Members have always found those resolutions to be fair and honourable. We believe that they should be the basis of the talks between President Clerides and Mr. Denktash. To the credit of President Clerides and leaders of political parties in Cyprus, that is also their view.
Regrettably, the problem has always come from the Turkish Cypriot side, led by Mr. Denktash. After about 26 years of occupation, there has been no real progress. Another round of talks has begun. I and all Members of the House who want a settlement hope that those talks will succeed, but that rests with the attitude taken by Mr. Denktash. I hope that the British Government, as one of the guarantor powers for Cyprus and because Cyprus is a Commonwealth country, will be in the forefront of those discussions. We must make it clearly known that we want a settlement and that one is possible.
The text of the UN resolutions is the basis for the talks. I have great respect for and trust in the role and views of the UN. Over the years, as the talks have continued, there 1392 have been many hopes. For example, the return of Famagusta to the Republic of Cyprus was promised. Twenty-six years after the invasion and the departure of its people, because of the presence of the Turkish military, Famagusta—formerly one of the most beautiful towns in Cyprus—is a ghost town. Its return was promised by Mr. Denktash. He reneged on his promise, so great opportunities for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to live and work together were, sadly, lost. The UK must be foremost in seeking the return of Famagusta to the Republic of Cyprus so that those opportunities can be restored.
Cyprus is seeking membership of the European Union. I am delighted that its application is going well. President Clerides has repeatedly asked Mr. Denktash to join him in those talks for the benefit of Cyprus and its people—Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Sadly, Mr. Denktash refuses to join in those talks, in which the future of Cyprus would undoubtedly be developed.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is aware that, since the invasion of Cyprus, we have heard much about the independent state that Mr. Denktash has created in the occupied area. However, that independent state is recognised only by Turkey. I am one of the UK representatives on the Council of Europe—a parliamentary organisation with 41 member states. With the exception of Turkey, the Council of Europe refuses to recognise the so-called state.
It is also wise to point out that the United Nations refuses to recognise the state. However, we have heard repeatedly from Mr. Denktash that until his state—which he created with the support of the Turkish army—is recognised, he will not enter any discussions on the future of Cyprus. He has not shown any willingness to work for a settlement until this supposed state is recognised. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will clearly say that this country and this Government will not recognise this supposed state.
Early-day motion 952 is headed "Cyprus Talks". Among other things, it clearly states what could be the basis of a settlement of the Cyprus issue. It refers toa bright and prosperous future for all Cypriots in an independent, federal, sovereign—state—with basic human rights guaranteed for all.Can anyone who cares about his community, as I am certain that Mr. Denktash cares about his, object to supporting and working for the objective that the early-day motion clearly suggests could be achieved?
Cyprus is a member of the Commonwealth, for which many Members have a great respect. In September, the 46th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference will take place in London and Edinburgh. It will be opened in Westminster Hall by Madam Speaker and it will be attended by Her Majesty the Queen, by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by senior representatives of Commonwealth countries from throughout the world. In attendance will be the delegation from the Republic of Cyprus—the only country in the Commonwealth that is divided and occupied by foreign troops. I will attend as an officer of the CPA, and the occupation of Cyprus and the division that has sadly existed for 26 years will be a black cloud hanging over that important conference.
There are people in Cyprus—Greek and Turkish—who want to live, work and meet together. However, many of us in the House, irrespective of our political party, 1393 know how difficult it is to achieve those objectives because of the restrictions that are put on meetings by Mr. Denktash. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he will make inquiries via the British special negotiator for Cyprus, Sir David Hannay, on the political pressures that are now being put on opposition politicians and parties in northern Cyprus.
Early-day motion 1008 is headed "Cyprus" and it clearly gives details of the abuses that have taken place. It refers to a rally of 10, 000 Turkish Cypriots that took place in northern Cyprus in recent days to demand the return of their country from the influence of Turkey. I hope that my hon. Friend will make inquiries not only about the rally, but about the arrest of trade unionists in northern Cyprus who are now clearly showing their opposition to Mr. Denktash and his lack of willingness to enter into the negotiations that President Clerides and, I have no doubt, the British Government want to take place in the current round of talks.
Many of us in the House have known for years of the opposition in northern Cyprus to the policies that are followed by Mr. Denktash. However, whenever we refer to that matter, we are always told that it is lying propaganda which seeks to diminish the status of Mr. Denktash. However, because of the recent events in northern Cyprus, we know that that opposition has now surfaced. Turkish Cypriots clearly want Cyprus to develop a meaningful, prosperous future from which they will benefit. They want the UN-sponsored talks to succeed. For years, their voice has been controlled and threatened. However, as in country after country throughout the world, there comes a time when people say, "We've had enough." That is what Turkish Cypriots are clearly now saying of Mr. Denktash. Will my hon. Friend ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to inquire further into the recent events that have taken place in Cyprus?
We all know that Turkey wishes to become a major player in Europe and wishes, in due course, to become a member of the European Union. I have been told that clearly by Turkish politicians. We also know of the influence that Turkey has over Mr. Denktash and the affairs of northern Cyprus. I therefore hope that the British Government and other members of the European Union will make it very clear to Turkey that, if it wants progress to be made in its desire to become a member of European Union, it will have to play a much more constructive and involved role in the affairs of Cyprus than it has done in the past. I very much hope that the British Government will say that.
Like many other colleagues in the House, irrespective of our party, I wish the present round of talks to succeed. I want a Cyprus in which Cypriots—be they Greek or Turkish—are proud of their country and see their future together, with all the rights and security in place to ensure that future. I hope that the present round of talks will start to develop that aim. I cannot believe that the House, the Government and this country can continue to see a Common-wealth country divided by a foreign power, as it has been, sadly, for the past 26 years.
§ Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
May I apologise for the fact that, because of a meeting with charities, I shall not be present for the winding-up speeches?
1394 My remarks will be brief, but they are relevant because the House isabout to enter its annual long recess. They relate to the communications system in the Palace of Westminster. We live in a technological age, and this place is not exempt from progress. For example, we need only consider all the technological advantages that Portcullis House will offer hon. Members as we carry out our work.
Hon. Members have an excellent e-mail service and our fax machines, which are sometimes tied to our computers, all work efficiently and effectively. We have internet access across the Palace of Westminster and much of the information that we glean from the internet is invaluable. We are able to telephone mobiles when we need to get hold of people at short notice or when our secretaries or offices need to get hold of us. More importantly, we have an 0800 number for direct access to the PDVN, which is invaluable to the work that we do.
However, there is one aspect of communications in the Palace that needs to be addressed. We are all about to go to our constituencies, and this place will close partially for a period of time. Secretaries and other people will work here on our behalf. I hope that we will all be working tirelessly in our constituencies—as we should and always have done—in the best interests of the people whom we represent. However, an aspect of the way in which a constituent may contact us during the recess gives me great concern.
Currently, we have a voicemail system, and constituents telephoning our offices throughout the Palace of Westminster are given a message. If they do not telephone us directly, they may call a central number and receive a message from us saying, "Please contact me on another number." That has two detrimental effects on our constituents. First, they must telephone a London number, although our constituencies are across the country, and secondly, they are so often asked to telephone a second number. Constituents who get in touch regularly are not always those who can afford to do so, yet the issues that affect them must be dealt with straight away.
My request before we rise for the summer recess is that the House considers what I put to the Information Committee on 2 February: that we should have a proper, serviceable call-diverting system on our telephones in the Palace. I have spoken to people at BT, and that is possible.
§ Mr. Fraser
If we are to work efficiently and effectively, it would on occasion be a great advantage for a constituent to be able to get hold of us directly, or for us to be able to access a constituent's call more easily. When a constituent telephones, the message reaches us remotely.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
I am listening closely to my hon. Friend, but I am slightly be-mused. Since I became a Member of Parliament, my telephone number has been in the local directory. My constituents have no problem getting hold of me.
§ Mr. Fraser
Nearly all of us have our numbers in the local directory. Mine is also on any publication that I put out. It is nevertheless surprising how many people choose to telephone the Palace of Westminster. I have heard such 1395 comments across the Chamber and the political divide. I make my point on behalf of those people who, for whatever reason, are not aware of our numbers, but need access to their Member of Parliament. I certainly would not be standing here this morning if I had not already made every effort, as I shall in future, to allow my constituents to contact me. Such an anomaly in the system can be dealt with efficiently and effectively, allowing our constituents direct access—and vice versa—even when they correctly telephone the Palace and not a local number that we may have given.
The other aspect that I want to raise concerns telephoning abroad from this building on legitimate parliamentary business. To do so, one must go through a long-winded process of having the call logged and then claiming its cost accordingly. An example of the process was given to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), who is chairman of the all-party Hong Kong group. He took the decision to set up that group, and I shall not pass comment on that, but he informed me yesterday that, when telephoning Hong Kong on parliamentary business to set up meetings and make representations, he must pay for the calls.
All I am asking is that the House consider the issue of communication and call diversion. That may be something of which not all Members approve, but there are certainly occasions on which constituents have pointed out that they could not access us directly when we might have preferred them to be able to do so. I draw the problem to the attention of the House and ask that through your good offices, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the matter be considered, via either the Information Committee or the Government.
§ Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green)
I shall also raise the issue of Cyprus. I followed my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) in doing so in the debate on the Christmas recess, too. He is very good at putting the case for Cyprus, leaving one with very much less to say than one may have prepared. The issue of Cyprus is the main issue on which I want to touch, but I shall try to explore matters behind some of the figures and to identify the problems before us.
There are several problems in Cyprus. There are more than 1,600 missing people, and others live in enclaves, surrounded by occupied territories. Since 1974, 37 per cent. of the island has been occupied. The Anatolian settlers from Turkey are not at all the same culturally as the Turkish Cypriots. We have no problem with the Turkish Cypriots; Turkish and Greek Cypriots get on very well. There are tens of thousands of troops on the island, who should be withdrawn, and all churches in the occupied territories have been destroyed. I shall not expand on such points, as my hon. Friend has already made them. I should therefore like to make other comments about some of the causes of and reasons for the situation in which we find ourselves.
I am a delegate of the Council of Europe, which is closely connected to the European Court of Human Rights. Ten thousand human rights cases have arisen among the 41 member nations of the Council of Europe, but by far the most concern just one country: Turkey. As of March 2000, about 2, 150 cases of human rights violations concerned Turkey. There are 455 cases land 1396 appropriation, 418 cases of alleged forced evacuation of villages in south-east Turkey, which is of course the Kurdish section, 350 cases of torture or mistreatment of suspects, 134 cases of mystery killings, 75 cases concerning freedom of expression and 94 cases of alleged unfair trials. That is a very long list of awful incidents.
I could say a great deal more about Turkey. The Loizidu case is before the European Court of Human Rights at the moment. It was decided 22 months ago that Turkey should pay Mrs. Loizidu for her not being able to use her home in the occupied territory, but nothing has happened. Turkey, as a member state of the Council of Europe, and therefore a country that subscribes to the Court, should have acted directly. Britain also has cases before the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, and, like most countries, we adhere to the Court's decisions—not so Turkey.
I could speak for a long time on such matters, but I do not want to make life difficult for my colleagues who want to speak. I could talk for a long time about the Kurdish issue, but I shall say just one thing. The case of the Ilisu dam has come before us several times over the past couple of weeks. It has been discussed in Adjournment debates, and questions have been raised about it, so we are reasonably familiar with the matter. The dam will affect 36, 000 Kurdish people, who will have to move from what they regard as their homeland. The ancient Kurdish town of Hasankeyf will be flooded and that architectural treasure will be lost. Already, 19 villages have been cleared at gunpoint by the Turkish army. One could go on.
It still appears that the British Government are minded to support Balfour Beatty with £200 million backup from the United Kingdom Export Credits Guarantee Department—for the country of Turkey, which is violating human rights thousands of times over. The real fight is about water. Water shortages in that part of the world are extremely important. If the Ilisu dam is built, one can expect military struggles between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and other nations. The country in that area that controls water and the water supply will conquer everything before it. That is how I think the Turkish Government will proceed in the Ilisu dam project. My message to the Minister is, therefore, that the British Government should insist that Turkey plays a full part in human rights, and until it does so, the Government should resist its advancing further in the European Union.
§ 10 am
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
On 19 April, in Westminster Hall, in one of my longest and most complicated speeches, I spoke about a west country computer firm, AllVoice Computing plc. I am sure that the House is pleased to hear that I do not intend to make a similar contribution today unless I am seriously provoked.
On that occasion, I told hon. Members that AllVoice is a specialist computer company with some extraordinarily innovative products. For instance, it has made the technology of voice recognition a reality. AllVoice did not invent the technique of computers being able to write out dictated speech, but it produced software that turned that invention into a reality. Before that, it was almost as if a car had been invented, but could never get out of first gear. AllVoice produced the gear box that turned a theoretical possibility into something that worked.
1397 As I said, the story is long and complex and it is sufficient for my purposes simply to make the point that, although AllVoice patented its invention, it soon found out that it was a minnow in a sea full of sharks. IBM and Dragon Systems Inc. systematically exploited AllVoice's innovation, took it away and used it in their products. Without my going into great detail, one can imagine the effect on this small, innovative west country computer company if that practice had been allowed to go on unrestrained. To try and restrain IBM and Dragon Systems from behaving like that, AllVoice began proceedings in the United States to enforce its patent.
An extraordinary series of events in the American judicial system then followed. AllVoice applied for interim relief in the form of an injunction. Injunction proceedings are well known to Members of the House and to anyone with any acquaintance with the law, and they provide instant relief to ensure that there is no damage in the interim that would ultimately make a court case ineffective. Almost a year after the judge heard the application, he was not prepared to say whether he would grant temporary relief, so All Voice, in desperation, asked me to bring the matter before the House of Commons. It wanted to ask Ministers for assistance, and argued that, through the small firms merit award for research and technology and other grants from the Department of Trade and Industry, a substantial sum of taxpayers' money had been paid to it to enable it to develop its products. At the very least, AllVoice hoped that Ministers would say that, in relation to that investment, they had an interest in what happened to that company.
To be fair, the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce gave a surprisingly helpful and encouraging response. Indeed, judging by the faces of the civil servants who were present, she was more helpful than she had been briefed to be. I made the point that I was not asking the Minister to attempt to interfere in the American judicial process. However, I said that it seemed appropriate for Ministers to express surprise and concern that it should take a year to deal with an application for temporary interim relief. At that time in April, the application had not yet been dealt with. The Minister also conceded that something might be done under the trade-related intellectual property agreement or TRIPS, as I suggested. TRIPS conventions provide that a signatory to the proposition that patent law should be enforced across international boundaries is under an obligation to ensure that that patent legislation is applied in its own country. Uniquely, in the experience of the American lawyers acting for AllVoice, the judge took more than a year to consider interim relief and, each time he received a motion asking for direction, refused to consider the matter. On any showing, that suggests that the TRIPS conventions were not followed properly.
At the end of our debate, the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce was content that she had given a proper response to my argument. The civil servants looked miserable, but there is nothing wrong with that. There were some grounds for thinking that action would be taken. As I said, that debate took place on 19 April, and at least had the effect of taking matters forward, as, after a year, the judge quickly decided that he would not grant temporary relief at all. I then had a rather curious exchange of correspondence with the Minister. In those 1398 early days, it was an exchange, but it has now become a one-sided attempt to produce a response. At one stage in our correspondence, the Minister seemed to suggest that, if there was any mediation to be done, perhaps it was my job to mediate. I am not All Voice's American-based lawyer, and it would confuse matters extraordinarily if I were to attempt to start to mediate with international companies. I do not believe that that is my role.
The company is now faced with continuing litigation against IBM and Dragon Systems, two of the most powerful companies in the world. There seems to be no end in sight or, if there is, it is the outcome that happens all too often, especially on the other side of the pond, in which big predatory computer companies simply steal the innovations developed by smaller companies. When the smaller companies litigate in defence, the big companies simply drive them into the ground. On the broader argument that it is in the public interest that innovation should be protected and taken forward, as well as on the narrower ground of consideration for a company that has received large sums of taxpayers' money, Her Majesty's Government cannot stand idly by.
Certain action could be taken. First, Ministers could take account—and should already have done so—of the fact that Dragon Systems has been taken over by Lernout and Hauspie, which is known as L? that is an easier way of referring to it. In the course of the public filings that L&H had to make with the Securities and Exchange Commission in America, it was required to state specifically whether there was litigation pending against it. Extraordinarily, L&H said that no litigation at all was pending, even though AllVoice had litigation pending against Dragon Systems in America. It is extraordinary that Ministers can stand idly by—as, I am afraid they are, as I shall explain—during such takeovers, when British companies are involved and it is stated publicly that no litigation is pending, although, in fact, it is. Ministers could take a view on that.
In our debate on 19 April, the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce said that about £750 million had already been paid in DTI grants to companies such as AllVoice to enable them to take forward innovative programmes. The irony is that, in this country, IBM itself benefits from Government grants such as those for regional assistance. In certain areas, IBM is practically subsidised to come to this country. We therefore seem to be in a position in which companies can come here, receive Government assistance and, at the same time, drive—or attempt to drive—into extinction British companies that have done innovative work. The Government should consider whether it makes sense for one hand to pay out to companies such as AllVoice and the other to subsidise those who would put such companies out of business. As I said, I understand why Ministers cannot interfere directly in the judicial process in America or this country, but there is no reason why they should not be entitled to take a view on the track records of those companies that they subsidise. Before they subsidise a company such as IBM, it is appropriate that they should look at what that company is doing and consider what sort of company it is.
The House may recall the Dyson case, when the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner had an appalling time trying to see off predatory litigation.
1399 I have always taken the view that it is all too easy to bring problems to Ministers, but the least that one can do is to attempt to offer a solution as well. In correspondence with the Minister, I have pointed out that things could be done and that she should look at the way in which assistance is given to companies such as IBM. At the very least the Minister could meet AllVoice and hear about the work that it has done, the good use to which it has put taxpayers' money, and listen as it explains why it is essential that action is taken.
I wrote to the Minister on 2 July and 14 July. I accept that they were long and somewhat complex letters in which I asked her to meet AllVoice. So far—although I have not checked my post this morning—I have heard nothing back. Why? Before I became a Minister, I saw an episode of "Yes, Minister" many years ago, when Hacker arrived and saw that the contents of his in-tray were a nightmare. Those of us who have been in government will know that that is close to the bone. Sir Humphrey sorted it out; he picked up the in-tray and dropped it in the out-tray, saying "We will deal with it for you, Minister."
The problem sometimes with being a junior Minister is that the system can accommodate only those situations to which it is used. I have no doubt that when officials read the debate that I initiated on 19 April and the lengthy letters that I have written since, they said that the matter did not fit into the mainstream of their activities. Perhaps they thought that they should pause for reflection; perhaps over the summer recess. That is all fine and dandy, but for companies trying to survive in the marketplace, it is lethal.
Ministers must understand that this is not a usual situation; It is not something to which their civil servants will be used. We need Ministers to look at this and take an innovative view. One of the things that I find remarkable about this Administration, with their huge majority, is the lack of confidence among their junior Ministers. As I am addressing the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office—whose help I greatly value—I am restraining myself massively from saying that some of the outer members of the Cabinet suffer from that lack of confidence, also.
I see a number of other ex-Ministers in the Chamber, and I believe that if a junior Minister really wants to do something, he very often can. He may not have much power, but, very often, he has influence. If one looks at a problem without attempting to find reasons not to do something, and if one looks positively at how one can help, very often one can achieve extraordinary things.
I am bringing the Parliamentary Secretary a problem and a solution. I would like an assurance from him; not that he will begin to understand the complex details of the case—that would be outrageous—but that he will acknowledge the concerns that I have expressed. He and I have known each other long enough, so I hope that he realises that I do not turn up here every week making such requests. I hope that he will specifically draw this debate to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
If Ministers do not act, and act soon, there will be two consequences—one national and one specific to All Voice. The national consequence is that if we keep subsidising major companies which use predatory litigation to steal the software and inventions of small British companies, we will make this country a breeding ground for overseas predatory companies which will use taxpayers' money to rip off the taxpayer.
1400 More specifically, AllVoice is not some dot.com company. It is not a flyby-night company, but one with a proven track record in terms of profits and patents. This company has shown an ability to work at the forefront of technology and has received a substantial imprimatur from the Government with the investment of taxpayers' money. Even as I speak, the company is working on innovations which could bring billions of pounds of investment to this country. Ministers may do nothing and may allow themselves to hide behind the formula that this is about litigation which must be left to the courts. They may believe that it will be fine; at the end of the day, no Minister will be found responsible for not dealing with the matter as I have suggested. The safe option for Ministers, as always in these circumstances, is to do nothing. The right option is to look at the matter and say, "How can we help?"
§ Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
Most of us will go back to our constituencies with a lot of good news to relate; the Chancellor's spending review has made sure of that. As we look to what it will mean locally to health and education and in terms of addressing the problems of crime, many of us will be in good heart that it is time to deliver.
However, I thought that it was important to be here today to raise the concerns of one group from my constituency—the large number of pensioners. I understand the technicalities of the spending review, which addressed departmental budgets and not the totality of Government expenditure, the rest of which is addressed in the Budget. However, pensioners do not understand that, although the Chancellor went out of his way to make it clear that he would be doing more work over the summer and would make announcements in the autumn.
The Government must bear in mind the disappointment there has been among many pensioners, despite the good start that the Government have made in addressing the problems that they inherited. My pensioners entirely recognise the roots of the problems. The very fact that for so many years, their campaign has been to restore the link between pensions and earnings—taken away at the outset of the Tories' period in power—shows that they know who was to blame for the problems that they face and the poverty that many have had to endure for far too long.
I represent a wide range of income groups among pensioners. My constituency is an attractive part of the country; the north Norfolk coast has a unique appeal. It is a designated area of natural beauty and protection, and has many sites of special scientific interest. It is an attractive area to live in, and many come there to retire. Some are well off, and many did very well under the last Government. A fairly typical figure nationally is that one in three saw their incomes rise more than those in work during those years.
To their credit, a fair number of those joined in the campaigning for others. Some are well known; Moss Evans comes to mind. In his retirement, he has been among the leaders in my area in the campaign for poorer pensioners. Certainly, at least a third are impoverished. Many pensioners retire to park homes. They have modest capital and have bought cheap homes for their retirement, in some cases having sold a house elsewhere, in the hope that they might use some of the capital to see them 1401 through their latter years. They are among those who have been thrifty in the past, with an eye to the future. They have a little capital and believe that, as the Government reverse the economic position of so many others in the nation, they deserve help and recognition for what they had to endure for 18 years.
In the middle group are many pensioners who worked for the state. I have very active branches of Post Office and British Telecommunications pensioners. They are typical of a group of people who have modest pensions from various sources. They are not rich and they have not had an easy time.
The Government have done much to address the needs of the poorest pensioners in my constituency. Many thousands have benefited from the minimum income guarantee. It is widely appreciated that the Government have done much good for pensioners across the board. The introduction of and the large increase in the winter fuel allowance were greatly welcomed. There was a huge response to the reintroduction of free eye tests. In Norfolk, there was a 90 per cent. increase in the uptake of national health eye tests—a dramatic increase which suggests that many pensioners had been suffering from poor eyesight, following the imposition of charges by the previous Government.
All these forms of assistance have been welcomed, but when pensioners hear announcements such as those that have been made over the past week or two concerning the future of the health service, education, the police and other public services, they feel that more needs to be done for them. That is the message that I bring to the House.
If I am to do my job of representing pensioners, I must pass on what they tell me. They tell me that what they want, and what they have been arguing for for many years, is the restoration of the link. I have explained to them that Government policy has been more targeted than that, but pensioners do not want to hear that message. However, reasonable folk that they are, they have sat down with me and discussed alternatives and priorities for which local pensioners groups seek support.
I have some extremely active groups—the King's Lynn and District pensioners group, the Post Office and BT groups to which I referred, and the North-West Norfolk pensioners group. I have many meetings and exchanges of correspondence with them. Among the most assiduous campaigners is Mr. Roland Worth, who is involved in at least two of those organisations, and Mr. and Mrs. Martin, from the King's Lynn and District group.
It is clear that pensioners understand the need to help those in most need first, but when the Chancellor introduces his proposals for the pensioners credit, they want it to be targeted not only at the poorest, but at those who, through their own thrift or because of their modest pensions, are only a little better off than those who have been helped so far.
I hope that, during the lifetime of this Parliament, we deliver on the promise that we made at the last election that we would ensure that pensioners shared in the economic prosperity that the Government brought the nation. We must therefore make sure that the scale of the help is in proportion to the benefits that we deliver to other parts of the economy. Pensioners must be seen to receive their fair share of the benefits.
1402 There remains a concern among many pensioners that more should be done for older pensioners. In answers to written questions, I have been told that a £5 increase in the basic pension at age 75 would cost £700 million net, and that a £10 increase at 80 would cost £700 million. Those are large sums of money, but not in comparison with the sums that have been discussed in the House in recent weeks.
Despite the extra help that we have given through the free television licence, many of my constituents would welcome some cash as well, especially as that age group includes not only some of the poorest pensioners, but, I suspect, a larger proportion of those who fail to take up their entitlement under the minimum income guarantee. There is a good case for targeting older pensioners.
I hope that the Chancellor will bear in mind a further factor. I believe that the Government have a healthy lifetime ahead, and I am confident of the outcome of the next election, but it would be a foolish parliamentarian who did not want to make sure that pensioners' well-being did not depend on which party happened to be in government.
At the first opportunity, the previous Conservative Government undid what the preceding Labour Government had started to do a relatively short time before to safeguard the interests of pensioners. We must ensure that the measures that we introduce are protected, as far as that is feasible, against future changes in political control. There must therefore be as wide a consensus as possible on the ways in which we act to help the pensioner population. That must be tightly tied into law, so that it will not be easy for a future Government of a different hue to change it.
We must ensure that the changes that we have introduced in the pension regime for those in work will survive and be difficult to overturn. We must also ensure that when, as I hope, pensioners receive a boost this autumn, the Conservatives would find it politically difficult, if not impossible, to undo it if they gained power in the future. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will assure me today that work is going ahead at full speed in Whitehall to make sure that the announcement this autumn will meet the needs of the many pensioners for whom I speak.
§ Mr. John Horam (Orpington)
I wish to raise a topic that, at present, is of concern only to my constituents and the residents of the borough of Bromley, but which, in due course, will concern all hon. Members—that is, the proposed merging of health authorities throughout the country. I refer specifically to the proposed merger of the Bromley health authority with the neighbouring Bexley and Greenwich health authority. The consultation on the proposed merger has been launched and will be concluded before Parliament returns in October, which is the reason why I raise the issue before the recess.
The proposed merger in my area is a guinea pig, or a stalking horse, to allow the Government to work out the consequences for a merged authority, before rolling out a programme of mergers across the country. It is intended that the merger will take place in April 2001, to be followed by a series of mergers, possibly a year later.
The proposed mergers are necessitated by a change in the role of the health authorities following the creation of primary care groups, and in particular, primary care trusts, 1403 which are taking more of the burden of allocating the moneys that they receive from the Government. Therefore, there is a reduced role for the health authority. Obviously, that has been a matter of controversy between the two major parties. We thought that it was not sensible to make a further bureaucratic change. We supported the old system. Bromley health authority was happily contiguous with the Bromley local authority, and, therefore, there was a good relationship between the two. Beneath that level there were GPs and fundholding GPs.
The Government, however, have made the change, and I do not wish to argue about that now. I do not wish to contest the principle behind merging health authorities in the way that the Government intend to do. If they merge them properly and sensibly, there may be savings in bureaucracy. However, I am concerned—I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) are also worried—about the effect on the funding of health care in Bromley as a consequence of the proposed measures. It seems to us that the effect will be unequivocally bad. No doubt the Minister is delighted that my right hon. Friend is not present to make the point in his inimitable way.
That follows from what is called the pace-of-change policy, which has been put forward by the Department of Health. At present, every health authority receives a target allocation that is based on its needs. For historic reasons, some health authorities have an allocation above their target. Some allocations are lower and some are equal. If there is an historic allocation above an authority's target, it will receive less than it otherwise would, so that ultimately there is convergence on target allocations. Bromley is on its target whereas Bexley and Greenwich is above it. Therefore, Bexley and Greenwich receives less each year than Bromley.
A combined health authority would come into the above target category. It would then receive less than the two separate authorities. The Library has calculated that this year, for example, Bromley and Bexley and Greenwich combined would receive £700, 000 less than the two separate authorities would receive. Bromley health authority more or less concurs with that figure. It says that there would be a difference of £800, 000. That will not happen only this year. As the pace-of-change policy will be unrolled over several years, millions of pounds will be lost to the funding of health care in the area that I represent.
The point was made clearly—perhaps more succinctly than I am making it—in an article in The Health Service Journal. It says:A financial "mismatch" could derail a health authority merger seen as a "blueprint for changes elsewhere". "Plans agreed at Bexley, Bromley and Greenwich are likely to become a blueprint for changes elsewhere in London as local decision-making is passed to PCGs, and HAs develop their more strategic role", said Bexley and Greenwich … Bromley HA chair Selwyn Ward said: "If you sit down and work out what the new authority looks like, it comes out closer to Bexley and Greenwich than Bromley. It would get very little growth money. There would be no advantage to merging if we end up with less money in the health economy as whole", he added, "I have made that clear to region.That is the problem. In addition, the Bromley health authority has underspent over the past two or three years by a total of £3.7 million. Underspending on health may amaze some of our constituents, but underspending is a common problem throughout government. It affects 1404 health as much as anything else. We should all be concerned about the famine-and-feast approach to public spending that the Government have adopted. It is quite difficult suddenly to step up spending, even when funds are available. For all sorts of reasons relating to contractual obligations, it is sometimes not possible to spend the money in the appropriate period.
For whatever reason, the Bromley health authority has accumulated funds. It seems to me, and to those who are in charge of these matters locally, that the region is, in effect, using these funds as a sanction to persuade the health authority to go along with the plans. In other words, they are saying, "You cannot spend this money, even though it is your money, unless you agree to our plans for the health authority." When the merger takes place, there will suddenly be an announcement of an extra £.7 million for Bromley. That will be its own money, which it should have had anyway. That seems to be a rather dubious way of proceeding.
There is no doubt that the money is urgently needed in Bromley. For example, the accident and emergency department has come under much criticism recently. We could spend money now, and certainly over the next 12 months, on improving conditions in that area. Despite the heroic efforts of staff, there are long trolley waits and other great difficulties. That is another problem which I should like the Government to consider.
In considering the merger of health authorities, there is the problem of the deficit that is attached to any particular hospital or NHS trust. Bromley has been cautious and does not have a deficit. It has hardly ever had one. However, neighbouring hospitals—for example, Queen Mary's and Greenwich health care trusts—have had deficits and in some instances still do. There is concern in Bromley, which has been careful, that money will suddenly be taken away from it and poured into dealing with the deficits of neighbouring hospitals. That could easily happen if there were no rule to prevent it.
I have no quarrel with the principle behind merging and, in a broad sense, I wish it well, but I seek an assurance that, following the consultation that will take place, Bromley will not be financially disadvantaged by any merger that takes place. If that assurance can be given, many of us would wish the merger to proceed. Until the assurance is given, my colleagues and I will be opposing the merger.
It is in the Government's interests that the matter is handled sensitively and well. As I have said, it is effectively a blueprint for other mergers that will be unrolled throughout the country. If the merger between Bromley and Bexley and Greenwich goes wrong, suspicions will be aroused among Members who are concerned about health funding in the areas that they represent.
While I am on my feet, may I raise another matter? As we all know, palliative care has come about because of huge voluntary efforts by many people throughout the country. The charitable work that has gone into the hospice care movement cannot be praised too much. I know from my own experience that South Bromley Hospice Care has been excellent in raising money over the years. Many people have made a huge effort, for which they should be praised. As it happens, little money comes to hospice care facilities from government. 1405 Only 21 per cent. of the money that comes to South Bromley Hospice Care comes from government. The rest comes from charitable fundraising.
As we all know, the demand for hospice care facilities and palliative facilities is rising almost exponentially. We know that hospices help to some extent to take the burden off local hospitals by providing for facilities to enable people to remain at home and receive appropriate care. Those are people who otherwise might have to go into hospital. It is a vital but underfunded part of the health care system.
However, South Bromley Hospice Care, like other such organisations, has run into charitable fatigue, as it were. Along with other good causes, it has had difficulties and funding problems. As a result, it has had to lay off staff and cut its provision of facilities. That has had a repercussive effect on the local hospital. There is a plan, which originates from the health authority, to increase funding from 21 to 50 per cent. over a five-year period. However, in the short term, there has been no help. I have corresponded about that with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). She recognises the problem because, in recent letter to me, she said:From the recent national survey of palliative care provision we know that at present about 50 per cent. of health authorities have developed strategies for palliative care. This suggests that a more comprehensive strategy is needed.A more comprehensive strategy certainly needed, but so is more immediate help for hospice care. In my case, South Bromley Hospice Care, which has laboured with great success, now finds itself in difficulty for those obvious reasons.
St. Christopher's—a well-known hospice care organisation—has benefited from Government help. It is ironic that it has received help, given that it had a much deeper crisis, involving much more money, whereas the hospice in my area has not. Obviously, I wish St. Christopher's well and do not want to cavil about its help, but those who have laboured hard and been successful should not be penalised because of those who have not done quite so well. The NHS report, which we received yesterday, states:The NHS has to move from a culture where it bails out failure to one where it rewards success.I hope that the Government will take that on board in relation to South Bromley Hospice Care.
§ Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)
I wish to raise several constituency issues that have more general relevance, the first of which relates to the swimming pool in Central park, Harold Hill. It is partly a good news story in that it has recently benefited from a major lottery award of £4.2 million. That grant will be used to replace and refurbish the swimming pool and extend other sporting facilities, as well as to create a healthy living centre. Of course any community receiving such benefits applauds all those involved, as I do. It may seem churlish to criticise when one has the benefit of such an award.
The total refurbishment and reconstruction project will cost £6.4 million. The balance in excess of the lottery grant will be provided by a capital advance from the local 1406 authority. The difficulty with the scheme is that the replacement swimming pool will be smaller than the existing one. I am told that the old pool has a life of only about two or three years, so the matter is urgent. A mixture of community and competitive sports use the existing pool. Several swimming, diving, life-saving clubs and so on use the facility in an organised and competitive way. The pool is used from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.
The dilemma is that reducing the size of the pool means that some of the community use or the organised use will be squeezed out. Although the local community recognises the benefit of having a new pool, the major issue is whether the new facility will provide adequate facilities for all those involved. Such matters are of national concern because those considering such bids—Sport England and the various associations involved—need to consider the wider regional and sub-regional activities that take place in a particular pool.
Those organisations have informed me that there are few facilities for diving in east London and Essex, so not only the local community, but those in a wider area, benefit from that pool. Therefore, those who use the pool have to travel some distance, often in the early hours of the morning, just to get their pool time. Given the large sum involved—£6.4 million—one might have thought that all the various uses could be accommodated, but they have not been. The local community may lose out in a small way, and the organisations that use the facilities may be squeezed out or may have to travel much further to continue their activities. Much wider consideration is needed when planning such facilities to ensure that they are adequate.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made an extremely good announcement on sport this week. We all hope that our national sports will be more competitive internationally. We need to balance the needs of competitive sport and community sport and to encourage more people to take advantage of the benefits. However, we do not want to squeeze the organisations, almost all of which are voluntary. Much hard work is involved in running those clubs for the benefit of others. The local authority and all those involved are reexamining the project. I hope that a resolution will be found so that the pool can be increased in size. That will involve additional capital.
The second issue relates to access to railway stations for disabled people. There are two mainline stations in my constituency—Harold Wood and Upminster—neither of which has very good access for those with disabilities. Such facilities should be improved in partnership. I have made representations to Railtrack, the train operating companies and others and have got the various bodies together. One of the big failings of rail privatisation is that it is difficult for the transport organisations to plan strategically. A loose partnership has been formed in this case, and Members of Parliament have a role to play in trying to get organisations together.
Railtrack has been helpful and has informed me that it and the train operating companies estimate that the cost of addressing accessibility issues nationwide is about £00 million. Given the funding involved, it will clearly take some time to improve access for disabled people across the country, but that delay is too long for those who will suffer in the meantime. There are ways in which 1407 to get parcels of money together from the train operating companies, local authorities, Railtrack and, in some cases, businesses to improve such access.
Upminster station has four platforms, one of which is not served by a lift. That station is a major link between Romford and Lakeside, and Southend and Romford. Colleagues in the House may know the area. In effect, people with disabilities cannot make those journeys even if they wish to do so. We need to address those issues more quickly than is predicted by Railtrack and the train operating companies, especially in sub-regional hubs, as they are called in the parlance. I hope that the money allocated to transport in the comprehensive spending review will help to improve such access. I urge the Government to encourage local partnerships wherever possible.
Thirdly, I want to talk briefly about mobile phone masts. No doubt, that issue has been raised with other hon. Members. In recent months, there has been a proliferation of mobile phone masts in my constituency. I do not know whether that is a result of the recent inquiry and the Government's announcement of changes in the planning mechanism, but those involved seem to be getting in fast and putting them up wherever they can.
My message to the Government is that we should get on with the changes in the regulations quickly, because consultation is needed. One of the big failings of the current system is that mobile phone masts are suddenly erected with only a few local people knowing about them. People find it difficult to make representations to their local authority and suddenly there is a big outcry. That is of particular concern—some of it perhaps unwarranted—because of the issues raised in the Stewart report.
The final issue that I wish to raise concerns local government finance. I know that all hon. Members say that their local authority does not get enough money, and I am no different, but local government finance needs to be reviewed. My local authority is embracing much of the Government's programme, especially education spending, the community legal service and crime reduction partnerships, and putting efforts into all those programmes. However, Government policies always impact on local funding. Yesterday in Westminster Hall, we discussed crime reduction partnerships and heard of good examples around the country, and those are certainly working in my area.
The standard spending assessment for my local authority does not meet the needs of the area and leaves it strapped for cash. It means that the local authority cannot deliver as it would like. The best example of that is social services spending. In the past four months, some 90 beds a week in the local hospitals have been occupied week in, week out mainly by elderly people who could have been cared for in other parts of the care system. That delays operations in the acute sector.
Local authority financing cannot be ignored in relation to delivery of the Government's programme. Will the Government look urgently at that matter, so that local authorities such as mine, which want to deliver their programme, not only for political reasons but for the benefit of local people, have adequate funding to do so?
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
In principle, this could be the last time that I ever address the House because, if the Prime Minister wakes up one 1408 night in his Tuscan retreat and decides that he would really like to spend more time with his baby, he might call an election this autumn, which means that I would retire.
The House should not adjourn without considering two related issues. Men of my age and stage are expected to be gloomy. We are expected to believe that the country is going to the dogs and that the young are decaying beyond repair. I believe none of that, but I do believe that the Government are neglecting two issues to the peril of us all.
The first is the real value—actual rather than rhetorical—that the Government put on people. We hear constant repetition of the mantras about respect for people. We heard almost the whole mantra canon yesterday in the Prime Minister's statement on the health service. However, when we look at what is happening in the public services, we are entitled to question the real value of the mantras.
Let us take, for example, social services. In 1997, 7,722 social workers were in training; in 1998, there were 6,254; last year, there were 5,1764. No matter how much social workers or other workers in the public services are praised by Ministers, we shall see no improvement in the services if there are no workers to call on.
Another example is teachers. In education authority after education authority, the story is the same: teachers are simply not applying for vacancies and the numbers leaving early have become a haemorrhage. Part of the trouble is that the Government, building on the bad example set by us, have so increased the bumf and the controls that professional staff prefer to walk away from the stress. Another element of teachers' disaffection, however, is that the growth of abuse, in language and physical violence, has reached proportions that, in these days of high employment, make the jobs very unattractive.
The Government appear to have no answer to the problem. Ministers often appear to accept that bad language is now so common that nothing can be done about it. On playing fields, in the streets and, increasingly, in schools, hospitals and refuges, foul language and the depersonalisation of staff that that implies is taken for granted by those in authority, while the staff subjected to it take it for a while and then leave.
If the Government do not start to take this epidemic of crude behaviour seriously, we shall all be undone. Instead of wittering away about inclusiveness—a principle of great importance to which I greatly subscribe, but which in practice often means making a teacher's life impossible—Ministers should think about how they can give an effective lead in a campaign to restore the idea of dignity and good manners to hundreds of thousands of adults and children. The challenge may be less dramatic than that of drugs, but it is no less important. Indeed, the two are connected.
What is so sad is that the Government, who claim to believe in joined-up government, wander along ignoring the damage that they frequently do to those who try to stem the flood. For example, Kent has 1, 400 armed service cadets, devotedly looked after by volunteers, who give up two nights a week and many weekends to nurture boys and girls who would otherwise be on the streets making trouble. What happens? New dispositions for the regular services are brought in, making it impossible for them to continue the former level of support for the cadets. However, this joined-up Government take no steps 1409 to make those losses good. Little by little, that successful way of bringing children to a decent adult commitment to society will be whittled away, and the Government will not even notice.
I wish to draw the House's attention to an even more fundamental issue. Some weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland declared that the age of representative democracy was drawing to a close. His grounds for making that assertion were primarily that the new forms of electronic communication mean that we can ascertain quickly what the public believe about a particular issue and then fashion policies to take account of their expressed views. I have since heard on the radio Mr. Morris, an adviser of President Clinton, explaining that the electronic age has changed politics to such an extent that a Government have to fashion a new agenda each day or lose their popularity. The British Government appear to be doing that by allowing confidential memorandums to seep out into the press, although I am not sure whether that is deliberate.
Mr. Morris recommended that, not only should tiny elements of a policy be drip fed to the media each day but, more importantly, that the policy should be amended according to the daily popularity polls and other information available to the Government. That is the advice of one of the principal advisers to the President of the United States.
Moreover, the new communications age will make it ever easier and cheaper to hold referendums—I hope that you notice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I deliberately used the spellcheck version of the plural to fit in with the electronic age.
The threat, not only to this place, but to democracy as we have known it, is so clear from those two examples that the House should have a full debate on them at the earliest opportunity. Let me put on the table at least some of my reflections on the scheme, and hopefully the Minister will take them seriously when he replies to the debate.
Let me deal first with representative democracy. At its weakest, our system of electing men and women who are expected to exercise their own judgment on the issues of the day can lead to an arrogant disregard of the opinions of those who send us here. It may be many years, if at all, before the electorate exercise the ultimate sanction of throwing out those in safe seats. That disregard is not common among Members of Parliament, who are nearly all conscientious in their desire to ensure that their constituents' views are taken into account.
When representative democracy is at its strongest, we have powerful debates occasioned by the determination of individual Members to hold fast to their own beliefs. It is clear that, on many issues, the short-term reaction of our constituents to a particular event is one that they would not hold over a longer time. The idea that policy of lasting value can be made on the basis of a daily thermometer reading of public opinion is as absurd as it is dangerous.
Secondly, every Member of Parliament knows that the first reactions of men and women in our constituencies to new ideas are usually hostile. That hostility is based on some of the commonest features of mankind: a desire to hold on to any privileges that we currently enjoy, a fear of the unknown, and, in particular, a fear that often leads 1410 to hostility to people who are perceived as different from ourselves. If it is suggested, for example, that a community should play host to asylum seekers, the mentally ill, or even a new housing development, a surge of self-interested hostility rolls out, and tries to drown out those who advocate the change. How should policy be devised if that is what the thermometer readings are telling the policy makers?
Thirdly, what part can principles play in the electronically driven computer game of policy making? If we are busily engaged in tailoring our policies to ensure that we stay ahead of the game each day, how do we make room for little awkwardnesses such as the idea that a person has the right to be deemed innocent until he or she has been proved guilty? Is it because the new philosophy is gaining ground at No. 10 that we have seen in this Parliament a weakening of even that ancient principle?
Yet, even for the Ministers who are most enthusiastic about the new democracy, there are some difficulties. Even they have some personal beliefs—or at least pretend that they have, for the sake of their activists. Among those beliefs may well be, for example, the idea that people should be treated equally, regardless of creed, nationality or colour. They may oppose the death penalty, or the smacking of children. Some may believe that it would he to the country's advantage to join the euro. If their beliefs are sufficiently strong, they will no doubt manoeuvre carefully in order to avoid altogether asking the public for their view. As a result of that, rather than the House being an arena for debate on matters of principle or the shape of our society, a handful of elitists close to the Prime Minister of the day would define for us all issues that are too important to be subjected to the activities of the otherwise ubiquitous pollsters.
I do not believe that the age of representative democracy is dead. I firmly believe that it remains the surest bulwark against short-termism in policy making and the vagaries of political fashion—and I trust that long after you and I have left this place, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it will be the forum in which issues of principle and practice are debated on behalf of all our people.
§ 11.3 am
§ Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)
I want to raise with the Minister an issue that is important to my constituency: the proposal for a landfill site at a former quarry, known as Buck Park quarry, in Denholme.
The history of the problem is long and complex, but I firmly believe that the proposal should not go ahead, for a number of reasons. The first is the harsh environmental impact that its implementation would have on the surrounding water courses, especially as the disused quarry—an enormous hole in the ground—is immediately above the Hewenden reservoir, which eventually seeps into the drinking water serving the surrounding locality.
I am concerned not just about the effect of leachates on the reservoir, but about gases and other problems associated with landfill sites. The nearby Many wells quarry and landfill site has demonstrated those problems to many residents—environmental hazards, as well as, for instance, the mess caused by seagulls.
I am also worried about the traffic that the scheme would generate. I am thinking of all the heavy lorries and other vehicles going to and from the site, and the 1411 congestion that would develop on local roads. Moreover, residential amenities would be blighted. In short, there are many reasons why the proposal should be rejected.
I think it was back in 1992 that permission was given for the original Buck Park quarry. A number of conditions were imposed in connection with landscaping on a phased basis. As local people know, many of those conditions have been breached. Rather than "backfill" taking place as stone was removed, the hole has got bigger and bigger. There is now an enormous scar on our landscape, and—in contrast to the original intention of landscaping and filling in the hole bit by bit—the current proposal is to fill it with waste and rubbish, over the brim, in a very visible area.
Many residents are very upset and angry. Around this time last year, a referendum took place. There was a turnout of 53 per cent.—which is unusual in the case of local referendums—97 per cent. of whom voted against the proposal. I myself am angry that the local council has failed for so long to enforce properly the conditions attached to the quarrying operations. There is a history not just of poor monitoring and insufficient landscaping, but of a host of problems relating to the removal of footpaths and a failure to provide adequate bunds to mask the area. I have had many letters and calls from worried constituents. Although they were not surprised when the proposal came along, they are worried nevertheless. There have been several big marches through Denholme, one of which I was able to join.
This is a not a party political matter locally; there is all-party opposition. Any planning application, however, involves difficulties relating to local democracy. The local council has to deal with such matters. The original planning application for this landfill site was submitted to the council recently—in the past year—and I was pleased when it was rejected for reasons connected with highways and residential amenities. Unfortunately, the council hired banisters to give an opinion about the likelihood that the refusal could be defended at an appeal. The banisters suggested, wrongly in my view, that the rejection was unsustainable. The council declared that at any public inquiry, it would be unable to defend its grounds for rejection. We were left in limbo, uncertain whether the applicant would pursue the matter in view of the council's failure to defend its rejection of the application.
For some reason, the applicant then decided to lodge a fresh application. The council considered it last Monday, 24 July, and rejected it again. However, the rejection was based not on the reasons of the environment, highways or residential amenity that I have described, but on the ground that the landfill would be detrimental to visual amenity.
I agree with that conclusion, but I am disappointed that it is now the only reason for the rejection. Given the big business interests behind the landfill development, it is likely that an appeal will be made to a planning inspector, who will be able to determine the case only with reference to visual amenity. I am worried about the outcome of that appeal. I despair about our chances, as I fear that the inspector will not decide for the local authority. We will try to persuade him of our case, but the council has a lot to answer for.
Why did the council give only reasons of visual amenity when it rejected the application? Surely it should have raised the serious environmental problems and 1412 highway dangers created by the proposal? What about the views of residents? I fear that the council's decision to turn down the application on the ground of visual amenity alone will be hard to defend.
Although I do not hold out much hope about the appeal, there is still a chance that the Environment Agency, which licenses landfill sites, will reconsider the environmental argument. Bradford council should have raised the question of licensing with the Environment Agency before the case began, and I am disappointed that it did not even take account of the proposals for further quarrying. The behaviour of the council's planning committee needs to be reviewed later, but I hope that the council will refer the matter to the Environment Agency.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to convey my strong feeling that the Environment Agency must call in the licence application for the landfill site. I believe that the site's impact on local watercourses means that the licence application should be rejected.
The residents have done stirling work in opposing the landfill proposal, which I considered important enough to bring to the House's attention. The fight goes on to try to stop the proposal.
§ Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)
I want to raise several points with the Minister. He is always courteous, and although I do not expect him to respond today, I hope that on my behalf he will gee up the relevant Government Departments over the summer.
I misread the Order Paper earlier, and what I thought was a three-hour debate will in fact last until 2.30 pm. I apologise for that, and for the fact that a surgery that I am holding in my constituency at 3 o'clock means that I will not be present to hear the Minister's response. I do not want to be done for speeding, nor to be caught on film by the cameras along the A 127. I hope that the Minister accepts my apology.
In addressing the House this morning, I want to secure help for Southend, and for some organisations there. The Minister will recall that the result of the local elections was that the Conservative party took control of the council from the previous Liberal Democrat-Labour administration. I was delighted at that, and the new administration has done a remarkable job in just two months, restoring all the difficulties suffered by residents under its predecessor.
However, the new council is keen to get a Government response on several matters. First, the Deputy Prime Minister announced that £180 billion would be spent on the transport system. Such sums are so huge that they go over people's heads. The right hon. Gentleman said that there would be cash for 100 new bypasses—70 local schemes and 30 national schemes.
The Minister knows that people are queueing up to visit Southend, the country's premier seaside resort. As a result, we are experiencing dreadful traffic congestion. Councillor Roger Weaver, deputy leader of Southend council, advises me that the best relief for that congestion would be a new bypass. I should be grateful if the Minister would find out how much of the £180 billion will find its way to Southend. I am glad that the previous administration's barmy schemes—for a dedicated bus lane along the length of the A13, and for traffic calming measures—have been dropped or moderated.
1413 I was delighted by the comments of the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill). I agree with him about the swimming pool, and although I am sick of his local swimming squad beating Southend's, I shall not dwell on that matter. However, the hon. Gentleman made some very well judged remarks about telephone masts.
As the Minister will recall, the problems associated with telephone masts were aired in the Whitsun Adjournment debate. Although all hon. Members will welcome the Government's proposals in that regard, the masts are still being erected at great speed. I hope that the Minister will gee up the relevant Department, as action must be taken quickly. Many local residents are upset about the masts.
Southend is undertaking a review of special needs provision. Under the previous administration the officers appear to have decided to take advantage of the Government's plans to include such provision in mainstream schools. As a result, all hell has broken loose; try as we might to reassure them, parents of children at the five special schools in Southend are distraught, and feel that their children will not receive proper treatment in mainstream schools.
We have tried to tell parents that officers under the previous local administration had only launched a consultation scheme, but they are very upset. Other hon. Members with Essex constituencies will find that some children from their areas are educated at the five special schools in Southend, four of which are in my constituency.
I know that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment feels strongly about this issue. The House will be aware of the right hon. Gentleman's experiences in a special school, but such experiences are not always shared by people who attend such schools. My brother-in-law is blind, and my wife's sister has very little sight; they were educated in special schools. It is incredible that anyone could think that the children who go to the schools in the area that I represent, such as Lancaster, St. Christopher, Kingsdown and Fairway, or the school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), could be helped in mainstream schools.
I shall quote from a letter that I received from a constituent, who says:Our eldest son has so many psychological scars from mainstream schools. Parents will get to the stage where they feel backed into a corner, and for their children's emotional and psychological well-being will opt for no school rather than a mainstream …Children like ours are at serious risk of bullying, ridicule and being ostracized.Will the Minister find out from the appropriate Department how we can reassure those parents that after Southend has gone through the special needs review, the Government will not insist that those children are taken out of the schools that they are so delighted with at the moment?
The next local issue that I wish to raise is socially affordable housing. Mrs. Gwen Horrigan, the chairman of our housing committee, was delighted with the Green Paper on housing. She welcomes the proposals for affordable housing. However, she is right to draw my attention to the document, because she wonders how the 1414 Government intend to fund their proposal. Southend is such a popular place in which to live that house prices have rocketed over the past year. Yesterday I phoned an estate agent, who reckoned that there had been an increase of 20 to 30 per cent. in the past year. Young professional people cannot afford the mortgage on a flat. An efficient implementation of the programme—with enough funding—would certainly benefit the Southend economy, which continues to struggle; that is why we have objective 2 status. I should be grateful if, during the summer recess, the Minister could find out how the Green Paper will help Southend.
The Kennel Club is concerned about the distressing situation in Germany regarding the treatment of some dogs. It has advised me that the German Government are attempting to pass legislation to ban the breeding and import of bull breeds, including the Staffordshire bull terrier. I should be grateful if the Minister could find out from the appropriate Department whether we are in talks with our German opposite numbers, because this issue is causing great distress to dog owners in this country.
The dogs that the German Government are classifying as dangerous are mainly British breeds—Staffordshire bull terriers, bull terriers, bull mastiffs, old English mastiffs, Neapolitan mastiffs and Rhodesian ridgebacks. I think that the British bulldog is not included. Those breeds are registered in the United Kingdom, and the Government do not consider them to be fighting dogs or a threat to public safety. I should be grateful if the Minister could find out what our response will be if the German Government go ahead with that legislation.
A little while ago we had a debate in Westminster Hall on volunteering, and I was told that I had spoilt the party. I suspect that that debate was planned to coincide with the Prime Minister's address to the Women's Institute. Much as I welcome the opportunity to rejoice in volunteering. I found it nauseating that although everyone was praising volunteers, voluntary organisations in my constituency had undoubtedly struggled under this Government. I shall bring to the Minister's attention the problems of two voluntary organisations, the first of which is the scouts.
We all enjoyed a splendid tea party in Speaker's House recently. The scouts in particular will be affected by the imposition of the requirement for a criminal records certificate, which will cost £10. I listened carefully to the response of the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) when we had the debate in Westminster Hall, and I have received much correspondence from the Scout Association. The Minister's response has been unconvincing, and the scouts reported him as having said that free checks would be an unsustainable burden on the public purse. If funding checks would be an unsustainable burden on the public purse, it will be even more of an unsustainable burden on voluntary organisations. It is ridiculous to expect voluntary organisations to cough up £10 a time.
We all understand that carrying out those checks is not compulsory, but we know only too well what the reaction would be if organisations did not do it. The Scout Association said:We need to see genuine "joined up thinking" being applied to volunteering, especially in areas of social exclusion—action not rhetoric.Voluntary organisations in areas of social exclusion will find a charge of £10 per person difficult to pay.
1415 The Home Secretary apparently told voluntary organisations to apply from grant assistance from the lottery. That is either naive or disingenuous. I cannot see how those organisations can apply for £750, 000 a year in additional core costs. Will the Minister gee up the Home Office on this important issue, because Members' postbags will be flooded with letters about this problem when the project goes ahead?
The other voluntary organisation to which I pay tribute is the Women's Royal Voluntary Service. I had the honour to be attached to it for a few days, and it has 115, 000 members, including 18, 000 men. Last week I went to St. James's park on the morning of the Queen Mother's pageant, and I saw the volunteers preparing the food for the people who were taking part in the pageant. Those people do a magnificent job. We turn up when they ask us to present badges, and we say they are marvellous, but what on earth do we do to help them?
Since 1 May 1997, the Government have done everything they can to undermine such people. Will the Minister persuade the appropriate Department to embark on a television advertising campaign to encourage more recruits to voluntary organisations, because they cannot afford to do it themselves? They tell us that volunteers are getting older and that there are not enough new volunteers coming through. If all those voluntary organisations dry up, we will be in a difficult situation.
I shall end my speech with a few thoughts. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) is no longer present, but he waxed lyrical about the Government. I do not have a good word to say about them. I find Wednesday afternoons increasingly difficult to cope with when I listen to the patronising claptrap spoken at the Dispatch Box.
Today murderers are being released, which the relatives of the victims will find difficult to cope with. Yesterday we had a statement about the health service. My goodness, Southend, West is 31st out of the 659 constituencies—but it cannot wait until 2005 or 2008 to get help. I recently visited St. Thomas's hospital, and it was interesting to talk to nurses who had met the leader of the Labour party when he was involved in that public relations exercise a few weeks ago. They were deeply unconvinced by what he had to say.
Morning, noon and night, we listen to soundbites, and all the talk of "billions of pounds", and "joined-up government". In reality, however, the general public and the media no longer accept anything that the Government say about any issue.
This time last week, however, was a great occasion, because of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill. I do thank the Government, and hon. Members on both sides of the House, for their support for that measure. I also hope that it is a very happy summer recess for everyone.
§ Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for his work on the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill. However, my view on the NHS plan differs completely from his. I think that it is an excellent document, and that the problems that it addresses are so serious because of the mess that was left to us by the previous Government.
1416 I do not want to address the issues raised in yesterday's NHS plan, but I should like to talk about two important, although perhaps less high profile, health policy issues. The first is wheelchair provision. Quality of life for wheelchair users and their carers is often determined by the make or break issue of whether a high quality wheelchair is provided. As many people will realise, wheelchairs can be the crucial factor in wheelchair users' independence and greater dignity and self-esteem. High quality wheelchairs often also improve their life chances by improving education and employment opportunities.
On 5 March 2000, the Audit Commission published a report highlighting serious problems with NHS and social services equipment provision. I shall concentrate on the report's findings on local provision by the wheelchair service. The report chronicled increasing pressures on equipment services. Demand is rising as the population ages, and expectations are rising thanks to advances in technology and science. The success of community care and the commitment of all parties to helping people to maintain their independence are also increasing demand for equipment services, particularly wheelchairs.
My interest in the issue was sparked by the mother of a young disabled person who came to my surgery and said that a wheelchair was absolutely vital to ensuring her child's full engagement in a school environment. She highlighted the totally unsatisfactory response that she had received from the local wheelchair service. After looking into the matter and examining in detail the conclusions of the Audit Commission report, I realised that, across the country, despite the rolling out by the Department of Health of good practice standards on wheelchair service provision, there is still great inequality in wheelchair provision.
Some NHS trusts offer a wide range of wheelchairs and do not place restrictions on wheelchair type or cost. Other NHS trusts have very tight eligibility criteria and limit wheelchair provision to intensive, permanent wheelchair users. Other trusts restrict the types of wheelchair they provide, although they may make wheelchairs available more widely and not only to intensive, permanent users.
The Audit Commission could find no evidence that the variations in wheelchair provision related to variations in local need. The commission found instead that the problem had more to do with historic patterns of wheelchair provision. The commission also chronicled wide variations in waiting times for assessment of need, receipt of wheelchair, and, in some cases, wheelchair repair.
The commission conducted a survey, at six wheelchair centres, to determine wheelchair users' opinion on the quality of service. It revealed that 40 per cent. of wheelchair users had not been shown how to maintain their wheelchair; 30 per cent. had not been given written information on using their chair; and 25 per cent. did not receive all the equipment that they needed. Perhaps the most telling statistic was that more than 30 per cent. of wheelchair users had not been asked what they wanted in their wheelchair. Another key statistic is that up to one in five wheelchair users have to wait more than two months for their wheelchair to be delivered. It confirmed that wheelchair service standards vary greatly.
It is crucial that the Department of Health should establish as soon as possible minimum core standards for all wheelchair centres. The Department must ensure that 1417 skilled assessment teams are available to provide technical and administrative support to the wheelchair service. There is also a clear need for more investment in wheelchair equipment. In some cases, local health authorities need to reconsider funding for the wheelchair service.
The Audit Commission report made two key recommendations: that health authorities review current service standards and urgently introduce quality improvement programmes; and that they introduce systematic reassessment programmes for all wheelchair users.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is deeply concerned about the very stark picture of a second-rate service in some parts of the country, and that an extra £40 million will be made available for the service. Nevertheless, I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will encourage our hon. Friends in the Department of Health to speed up their response to the Audit Commission report.
I should also like to raise the issue of patients' complaints. When patients make a complaint about the care that they or their relatives have received and the NHS trust decides to convene an independent review panel, they do not always receive clear guidance on the contents of medical files. I raise the issue because of the visit to my surgery by Mr. Alex Eady, of Field End road. He came to see me after his mother, Mrs. Iris Eady, died. He was concerned that she had suffered poor care at the local hospital, that she had not received proper medication and that hospital staff sometimes displayed a negative attitude towards her.
Mr. Eady had a number of meetings with health care professionals at the local hospital. Ultimately, however, he asked for an independent review panel to convene to consider his mother's care in greater detail. The local trust refused the request. I believe that we may need to consider whether NHS trusts should be allowed to make the decision on establishing independent review panels.
Subsequently, Mr. Eady sought to gain access to his mother's files to examine the contents in detail. Although he was successful in that, he lacks the medical expertise necessary to analyse information on the quality of care given to his mother and other information provided by the doctors and nurses who treated her. My staff and I have attempted to secure support for him by working with voluntary and nongovernmental organisations such as Inquest, and Action for Victims of Medical Accidents. Thus far, however, we have been unsuccessful. I suggest to Health Ministers, through my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, that it might be useful to provide community health councils with access to a doctor to examine precisely such cases.
Another issue that I should like to raise before the recess was brought to my attention by Mr. Bustin of 14 Wyvenhoe road, in my constituency. He highlighted the sell-off by Prudential of Egg shares, which could be bought only on the internet. If services become internet-exclusive, there is a real danger of exclusion for constituents such as Mr. Bustin, who do not have or do not want access to the internet. They are in danger of suffering if services or business operate only on the internet.
1418 Prudential claimed that that method of trading shares reduced the costs to those who wanted to buy shares, but as my constituent highlighted to me, there is an element of discrimination against those who do not have access to a computer, or those who live in parts of the countryside where there is no cyber café or library with internet access. There is potential for some form of exclusion if we are not careful.
The last issue about which I wanted to speak was the story of the Tower colliery in south Wales. Not every hon. Member is as lucky as I am in having Welsh roots. However, many hon. Members, especially Labour Members, know the story of the Tower colliery and of the campaign to save it. That campaign was led in part by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). Those of us with an interest in mining communities, such as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, or with roots in the Cooperative movement, are proud of the Tower colliery.
The story has been made into an opera, which was performed throughout Wales and, on several occasions, in Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley tells me that it will shortly be made into a film. However, the opera has not been widely performed in England. The Arts Council of England turned down the application for support to help the company tour. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will take issue with the urban peasants at the Arts Council of England and urge them to review their decision.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and other hon. Members have an excellent summer recess.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
I associate myself at the outset with the memorable remarks of the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who paid the warmest tribute to Madam Speaker at the beginning of our proceedings, after prayers. I am delighted that, in addition to her responsibility in chairing the September conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—an organisation which we hold in the highest regard—she will take time during the recess to visit the Baltic states and Ukraine. Those countries have regained their freedom and enjoy independence, which they did not have in the bad old days of the Soviet Union.
The Adjournment procedure provides an invaluable opportunity for me to consider the future ofHarefield hospital—one of the best-known heart hospitals in the national health service. I am grateful for the opportunity to describe the high regard in which we hold its services.Coronary heart disease is the most common cause of premature death in the United Kingdom. It accounts for about a quarter of deaths under the age of 65 and is on the increase.In 1997–98 in England, 389 heart and lung transplants were performed. of which around a quarter were undertaken at Harefield … This year, NHS providers in England will receive a total of £49 million for spending on research. The Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS trust is the health service's preeminent provider of research into cardiac and respiratory diseases and is receiving £20 million—just under 6 per cent. of that total.Many people are aware that, under the inspirational leadership of Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, Harefield hospital has become a world leader in heart and lung transplantation. It has the largest transplant programme in Europe … and has accumulated experience over the past two decades that is second to none, not just in this country or in Europe, but in the world. Since its programme was set up in the early 1980s, Harefield has completed well over 2, 000 transplants. 1419 I pay tribute to Sir Magdi and the whole team at Harefield, who have helped so many people over so many years to live a rich and fulfilling life.Harefield not only provides top-quality medical care, but makes a major contribution to world-class research into cardiac disease through its links with the Imperial college school of medicine. The research output of the cardiac and respiratory sciences department at Imperial has been recognised in successive assessments by the Higher Education Funding Council for England as of the highest international quality. Some 20 per cent. of the UK's research output in cardiac and respiratory diseases is completed at Imperial and its associated NHS hospitals. Perhaps even more impressively, two thirds of top-quality research citations in the UK are generated by the same department.—[Official Report, 2 December 1998; Vol. 321, c. 1020-21.]The words are not mine, but those of the then Minister of State, Department of Health, who is now Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), who was replying to my Adjournment debate on the future of Harefield hospital.
The Secretary of State and the Government now wish to close the hospital. I am delighted that my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) are on the Opposition Front Bench this morning. From their local experience, they fully appreciate the enormous merits of Harefield hospital, which is an incomparable national institution of international repute. Unless the Government have a change of heart, it will close shortly.
A three-month consultation period on the proposals outlined in the document "Modernising Specialist Acute Hospital Services in West London" began on 13 July. It is therefore opportune that we have the debate this morning. When we return in the autumn, only three weeks of the consultation period will be left, and the vagaries of the ballot system mean that I cannot be certain of securing an Adjournment debate in those remaining weeks.
It is important to get some vital facts on the record. First, the document's proposals are more orientated to building up the Paddington basin site, through new developments, and economically and socially regenerating that part of west London, than to addressing the future of cardiothoracic medicine in this country. The study's remit is far too narrow. I acknowledge that the specialist advice was given by the West London partnership forum. Perhaps it is therefore understandable, to some extent, that its vision should be so limited. However, we do not need to have limited vision. We should try to ensure that Harefield hospital, which the Secretary of State acknowledged as pre-eminent in its field, should continue and go from strength to strength.
The consultation document makes proposals for other specialist services with which I can readily concur. It suggests concentrating renal services at Hammersmith hospital and the movement to and concentration of paediatric services at St. Mary's hospital, Paddington. It also proposes two cardiac and thoracic centres for west London, and I do not demur. What is wrong is that both should be concentrated in inner London. We need one unit in inner London, at Paddington, and one in outer London—one must call it that, although I prefer "rural Middlesex"—at Harefield.
Harefield takes its patients primarily from outside London. Only 10 per cent. come from Hillingdon—the borough in which it is located—although 90 per cent. of patients in the borough with heart, chest and lung problems are referred to Harefield. The hospital is vital to 1420 us locally, both clinically and for employment in the village and that area of my constituency. There is no other comparable employment. The hospital is at the heart of the village economically and contributes greatly to its spirit.
Harefield's catchment area is wide; patients come from the whole of this country and from abroad. Earlier this week, I visited a patient who had received a transplant, without which he would certainly have died. His condition had degenerated and he was helicoptered from the south coast back to Harefield. He has been there for more than two months and, I am glad to say, is recovering well. Patients cannot be helicoptered into Paddington as they can be to the rural location of Harefield.
The patient's devoted wife has been at his bedside during the two months. She can stay in the hospital for £20 a night. She eats in the canteen. Those possibilities would not exist in central London—in Paddington.
The correct model is not necessarily to incorporate a specialist centre in a large general hospital. That is the model which the Government are pursuing, and I am happy for it to be set up at Paddington as they desire. However, at Harefield, not only is the most sophisticated treatment available—including heart-lung transplants—but there is a range of other services, such as angioplasty, bypass surgery and out-patient treatment.
The fact that the hospital offers the whole gamut of heart-lung treatments is its strength. This could be the model for the future. The Government should not put all their eggs in the general-hospital, central-London basket. They should build on the strength of Harefield and ensure that it has a real future.
Furthermore, Harefield has always benefited from private sector finance. In the NHS plan announced yesterday, with much fine rhetoric from the Prime Minister, the Government had something to say about that. The conclusion to the chapter dealing with changes in the relationship between the NHS and the private sector states:A closer working relationship between the NHS and the private and voluntary sector will be mutually beneficial. By putting the relationship on a new footing NHS patients will benefit. It will, in particular, contribute to winning the war on waiting for treatment in the NHS.Let the Government translate that into action. Let them allow us to build up Harefield as a centre of excellence based on partnership between the private sector and the NHS.
Since the consultations on specialist hospital services in west London began, the financial background has changed dramatically, not least because of the expenditure review announced by the Chancellor, but also because of the NHS plan. On investment in coronary heart disease, chapter 14 states:We shall be investing an extra £230 million a year in heart disease services by 2003/04. There will also be an extra £120 million of capital funding from the Treasury Capital Modernisation Fund over the two years to March 2002, to expand capacity and modernise services.According to current plans, the Paddington basin site will not be operational until 2006. The Government are pursuing a strategy to combat heart disease with great vigour—one hopes. Let them do so now by putting some of that extra money into Harefield. It would be the simplest and most cost-effective solution, as well as the one most appreciated by my constituents.
1421 Paragraph 14.23 of the NHS plan states:The National Service Framework pledged an expansion of 3, 000 extra heart operations in the two years to March 2002 at a cost of £50 million. We shall now boost this with a further £10 million in the current year backed by £120 million over two years from the Treasury Capital Modernisation Fund, to support more rapid expansion of existing services and begin the development of new cardiac centres. This will enable the NHS to achieve the 3, 000 target ahead of time, and to bring on stream at least a further 3, 000 operations on top of this by 2003.The first of the three consultation meetings about Harefield hospital was held yesterday in Hayes. It was noteworthy that one of the nurses, who works in the transplant unit and whom I had met on a visit to the patient to whom I referred earlier, said that the staff will not move to inner London. Their homes and schools are in the locality. They have a pattern of life in rural Middlesex and beyond that they enjoy; they do not want to move to congested, overcrowded central London.
The plan notes:Decades of underinvestment in coronary heart disease services will come to an end.If that is so, the Government need to enact the pledges in their plan. They state:The Coronary Heart Disease Partnership Programme, starting in October 2000—before we even return from the recess—will work with a group of cardiac networks across the country to streamline the delivery of high quality, patient-centred care and—I stress—get the most out of existing capacity.Either that is all baloney or the Government must review and change their strategy to close Harefield hospital. It is my earnest desire that Her Majesty's Government will see sense in this matter. They will be judged by what they do.
I shall end my remarks as I began, with a short quote from the debate on 2 December 1998. The debate needs to be reread by anyone studying the issue. I said:Harefield hospital's situation in rural green belt, at the nodal point of the M1, M25, M40, M4 and M3 motorway network, near to Heathrow and Luton airports, with its very own helicopter pad, ample space, surrounding quiet countryside, clean air and cheaper housing, is surely the right one to make it the right place for the country's premier cardiothoracic transplant centre, now and well into the century that is to come.Developers, PFI financiers and the great and good committee men may have other ideas, but I simply pray that Our Lady of Harefield—whose image in glass glorifies a window in the hospital chapel—and of the parish church dedicated in her name may bring advent wisdom to Ministers and allow the work of the healing of hearts to continue in the village where England's first and only Pope, Nicholas Breakspear—Adrian IV—was born.—[Official Report, 2 December 1998; Vol. 321, c. 1019-20.]
We have moved on. It is not advent; it is trinity and we are on the threshold of the recess. Let us use the quiet and tranquillity of our recess to reconsider policies which may not be wholly wise. It would certainly be damaging to cardiothoracic care in this country if Harefield were to close. I urge Ministers to think again.
§ 12 noon
§ Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)
The subject that I raise is by far the most distressing case with which I have had to deal since I became a Member of Parliament.
1422 One of the things that parents come to realise is just how intimately their own happiness is bound up with that of their children. Therefore, one of the things that parents dread is the diagnosis that their child has meningitis. The disease strikes fast and can be fatal, and I remember the pain of my own son and his fear as he submitted to a lumber puncture when he had meningitis five years ago.
My son is now 15, the same age that Wassan Khatib was in February this year. In February, her father wrote to me as follows:I am writing to you with reference to my only child Wassan who died on 6th of February 2000 and to the circumstances surrounding the twenty-four hours prior to her death.Wassan was 15 years of age. She was born on 26th of June 1984 at Portland Hospital in London. She has lived all her life in the UK and attended Heathfield School in Pinner. Wassan was always in good health and was a happy child.On Friday 4th of February Wassan attended a party at her school. We collected her from the school at 10.30 p.m. and she was safely in bed by 11 p.m. She awoke on Saturday the 5th complaining of a severe headache. She was vomiting and had a high fever. I considered the situation serious enough to call our GP at the Chalkhill Medical Centre and ask him to make a house call. I was advised that Dr. David Rapp, with whom Wassan was registered, would call as soon as possible. Dr. Rapp arrived at Midday. He asked Wassan what was wrong and she told him of her headache and vomiting. She evidently had a high fever although Dr. Rapp never actually took her temperature. He examined her chest and back with a stethoscope and visually examined her throat.As a normal father, I was concerned about my daughter's situation. I was aware of the fact that there had been a number of cases of meningitis recently and that the government was undertaking a vaccination programme at all schools. I specifically told Dr. Rapp twice, once before and once after he examined Wassan. that she had not been inoculated against meningitis.Dr. Rapp's diagnosis was that Wassan had a slight throat inflammation and told me that "there was nothing to worry about".
Dr. Rapp advised Wassan's parents to give her sips of water and paracetamol. Mr. Khatib says that he had never seen a slight sore throat cause high fever and vomiting, but he accepted Dr. Rapp's professional opinion, as did his wife, and they did what they were told.
Wassan's condition continued to deteriorate in the afternoon and by 7 o'clock that evening, her parents had become sufficiently worried to call the emergency number at the Chalkhill health centre. They requested another doctor to make a house call to see Wassan. Dr. Chowdhury, a locum, arrived at about midnight—five hours later. By that time, Wassan's condition was very bad. Her father says:To my mind there was no doubt that Wassan was very ill. Once again I took comfort that she was being attended to by a doctor.Dr. Chowdhury asked Wassan about her condition and she told him that she had a severe headache, had been vomiting and that she was very disturbed by light. Dr. Chowdhury examined her chest and back using a stethoscope and visually examined her throat. Her parents advised Dr. Chowdhury of his colleague's diagnosis. Dr. Chowdhury diagnosed that Wassan had a migraine. Wassan had never complained of a migraine before, and her parents could not understand how that explained her vomiting. They asked Dr. Chowdhury to explain. His response was simple: "Oh, it happens."
Dr. Chowdhury gave Wassan's parents four capsules of solpadol, with a prescription for further tablets if required. Once again, Wassan's parents deferred their doubts in favour of the doctor's professional opinion. Solpadol is a 1423 strong painkiller and it alleviated some of the headache from which Wassan was suffering, and she slept for a few hours.
At 7.30 the following morning, Mr. and Mrs. Khatib checked on Wassan to discover that her body was covered with a rash and that she was extremely weak. She continued to vomit and have a high fever. They decided that she must go to hospital and told her to dress, only to find that she was unable to support her own body weight. They called an ambulance, and it took Wassan to Northwick Park hospital in my constituency. The parents were left in no doubt about the seriousness of the matter by the ambulance crew, who radioed ahead to tell those at the hospital to prepare an intensive care bed. That was seven hours after Dr. Chowdhury had told Mr. and Mrs. Khatib that Wassan had a migraine.
The staff at Northwick Park acted promptly and efficiently. A specialist unit at St. Mary's hospital was requested. Wassan arrived at Northwick Park at 10 o'clock in the morning and staff spent the next few hours attempting to stabilise her condition for the transfer to St Mary's. She was finally moved to St Mary's at about 3 o'clock. She survived at St Mary's for a further two hours before her fight for life ended at about 5 o'clock.
A formal complaint was submitted to the General Medical Council about the conduct of Dr. Rapp and Dr. Chowdhury. I obtained a copy of the medical notes of both doctors at the time of their examinations of Wassan. Dr. Rapp's notes were not contemporaneous; they were printed on a computer system on the Monday morning, the day after Wassan had died. They seemed to indicate a level of 20:20 hindsight at variance with Wassan's parents' recollection of Dr. Rapp's visit. Under the heading "Comments", Dr. Rapp recorded:slight fever 2/7 slight vomit, alert, slight red throat, no nodes, no photophobia, no neck stiffness, no rash, chest clear, abdomen soft.I believe that those notes are not a true record of Dr. Rapp's examination of Wassan. I believe that they were manufactured subsequently to protect Dr. Rapp against the repercussions of his failure properly to diagnose the disease that subsequently killed that young girl. Dr. Chowdhury's notes, which were contemporaneous, record no tests for photophobia, body rash, or any other classic symptom of meningitis. The diagnosis is simply: migraine.
What Mr. and Mrs. Khatib did not know when they wrote to me or when they registered the complaint—indeed, they do not know now—was that Dr. Chowdhury was already very well known to the General Medical Council. On 12 August 1994, Dr. Chowdhury was telephoned by a registered general nurse and asked to visit a seriously ill patient whom the nurse thought was dying. Dr. Chowdhury refused to attend the patient. On 9 September 1996, the national health service appeals authority had exhausted its complaints procedure and, owing to the seriousness of the case, submitted the complaint to the GMC.
It took a further one year and two months until, on 10 November 1997, the professional conduct committee of the GMC found Dr. Chowdhury guilty of "serious professional misconduct". At the conclusion of the proceedings, the chairman announced the committee's determination as follows:Dr. Chowdhury: The Committee are seriously concerned that, on the facts admitted by you, you culpably failed to respond to the needs of a gravely ill patient. Your conduct fell grossly below the standards which patients are entitled to expect of their doctors.1424The Committee have judged you to have been guilty of serious professional misconduct in relation to the facts admitted on your behalf and found proved against you in the charge.In the light of your failure of care towards your patient, the Committee have considered most carefully whether they should direct the erasure of your name from the Register or the suspension of your registration.However, the Committee have taken account of your expressions of regret, the assurances that you have learned from the event, and the evidence from your patients and colleagues about your general standard of practice. They expect you to ensure that your future practice is never open to such criticism again.In all the circumstances the Committee have determined to conclude your case with a severe admonishment.
The House will note two extremely disturbing matters. First, Dr. Chowdhury continued to practise for three years and three months until he was finally found guilty of serious professional misconduct. Secondly, he was not suspended during that period. I ask the House to compare that with the complaints procedure that is applied to teachers, when anyone who is the subject of a complaint of serious professional misconduct is subject to an instant suspension from teaching duties pending an investigation. It is the same with the police force, as senior police officers have the power to suspend from service any officer accused of gross misconduct. The Government must examine why medical complaints take so long to determine and why doctors are so rarely suspended after the GMC has established that there is a prima facie case for the doctor to answer.
Sadly, the GMC's severe admonishment in November 1997 is not the sum total of complaints against Dr. Chowdhury. On 8 April 1998, less than six months later, Dr. Chowdhury began to sexually harass a patient. On 2 November 1998, that case too was brought to the GMC as a formal complaint. At this point, it might be thought that, with full knowledge of Dr. Chowdhury's disciplinary record, the GMC would act to suspend him. It did not do so. It did not even hold a preliminary proceedings committee until 9 September 1999, almost a year later. When it met, the committee still did not suspend the doctor, but referred the matter to the professional conduct committee, which did not meet for a further nine months until 2 June this year. On that occasion, it determined as follows:Dr. Chowdhury:Patients are entitled to have trust and confidence in the character and integrity of their doctors, particularly when doctors attend upon patients in their own homes. The Committee have found that, on a number of separate occasions, you attempted to pursue an improper emotional and sexual relationship with your patient, Mrs "A", who was at that time vulnerable and unwell. Furthermore, you did so on visits to her home in the evening when she was alone. You also persistently made unsolicited telephone calls to Mrs "A". By your conduct you gravely and repeatedly abused the trust Mrs "A" should have been entitled to place in you as a registered medical practitioner. You sought subsequently to dissuade Mrs "A" from pursuing her legitimate complaint, by seeking to involve one of your practice staff.The Committee have also heard evidence of your previous history. That history includes an appearance before the Professional Conduct Committee in November 1997 when you were found guilty of serious professional misconduct. Although the facts found proved on that occasion were different in character to those we have now found proved, you should nevertheless have been left in no doubt by the terms of the severe admonishment issued to you on that occasion as to the possible consequences were you to appear again. The Committee note with considerable concern that, despite that severe admonishment, the events in relation to Mrs "A" happened within a matter of months of your previous appearance here.1425The Committee have carefully noted the evidence and testimonials given on your behalf. But in view of your grave abuse of your patient's trust, and your previous history, they have found you guilty of serious professional misconduct in relation to the facts found proved in the charge, and have directed the Registrar to erase your name from the Register.That was on 2 June this year. Wassan Khatib died on 6 February, after Dr. Chowdhury had failed to diagnose her as having meningitis.
The Government must review the procedure and the length of time taken whereby doctors can continue to practise for years until they are eventually the subject of disciplinary procedures. There must be a proper process for suspending doctors.
Mr. Khatib wrote:Wassan was our only child. She was the apple of my eye and my life revolved around her. She was a well-loved and happy teenager with everything to live for … There is something basically wrong in life when parents have to bury their own child. Believe me when I tell you that these two Doctors have condemned my wife and myself, as well as Wassan. It is imperative that you act immediately to ensure that no one else need go through the suffering that we are going through now and through that which is yet to come.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I hope to have time to respond to a number of contributions, not least the distressing case raised by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner). First, however, I want to make my own contribution.
I make no apology for saying something about the holiday industry—not only because it is topical, but because my constituency is one of the most important holiday destinations, outside London, in the United Kingdom. Some 21 per cent. of the county of Cornwall's gross domestic product comes from the holiday industry—five or six times the national average.
In the week of the Concorde crash, it is a sobering fact that we are far more likely to suffer serious ill health—even fatal consequences—from the conditions in the aircraft cabin than we are to be victims of an air crash. The Aviation Health Institute, which I have consulted, and whose representative I met yesterday, tells me that of the 1, 000 deaths that take place in flight and on board worldwide each year, more are due to heart attacks than to air crashes.
I became interested in the subject because it was discovered that organophosphates—the House may know that I chair an all-party group on that subject—are used as lubricants in aircraft engines. It was discovered that dangerous vapours from OPs can leak into the cabin in certain conditions, with a damaging effect on the short and long-term health of pilots, flight attendants and passengers. I have recently met Senator John Woodley from Australia, who is conducting an inquiry into the matter. There is also a House of Lords inquiry, and in a recent debate in Westminster Hall I referred to the lack of attention given by Ministers to the problem.
Recently, I became aware of other health conditions that can arise as a result of long-haul air travel in particular. Those include deep-vein thrombosis, infectious diseases, some cancers, and the effects of reduced oxygen supply. It is the last of those that most people are aware of. I am grateful to the Aviation Health Institute for drawing my attention to the experience of Lufthansa's medical director, Dr. Luntz Bergkau, who said: 1426What passengers do not realise is that they fly in an artificial environment where there might be up to 20-25 per cent. less oxygen. This is equivalent to being on the top of a mountain and for people with heart or lung conditions, it can tip them into a crisis phrase.
In those circumstances, it is ironic that our present Government and their predecessors seem to be pursuing policies that encourage holidaymakers from this country to fly abroad for their summer holidays. I shall highlight three examples of the way in which that seems to be happening: VAT, the differential between regulation and overhead costs in this country compared with our competitors, and the artificial value of the pound.
Until last year, there seemed to be a steady increase in overseas visitors to the United Kingdom; indeed, the number doubled in 20 years. There were an estimated 25.7 million visits, which made a major contribution to the economy. However, especially in parts of the country outside London, there is evidence of slackening growth, or possibly even a fall, in the number of overseas visitors this year.
Businesses that had already cut their prices to impossible margins during the Conservative recession, to try to survive, have had to cut still further until, unfortunately, many of them have gone out of business or have had to increase their prices. They simply could not pull their belts in any more tightly. That is particularly true in my county, Cornwall, and in the west of England.
I turn to the factors that seem to have caused the problem, of which the first is VAT. The House may know that value added tax on hotel accommodation in France is 5.5 per cent., in Greece 8 per cent., in Spain 7 per cent., in Portugal 5 per cent., in Ireland 12.5 per cent.—and in the United Kingdom, of course, it is 17.5 per cent. Anyone, whether in Berlin or Birmingham, who looks at a hotel brochure recognises the disparity between the tax that must be paid in any of those other countries and the tax payable in the UK. That has an effect on both our domestic tourists and our overseas visitors.
Deloitte and Touche was asked by the British Tourist Authority to examine the economic effects of changing VAT rates on the British tourism and leisure industry. It found that a cut from 17.5 to 8 per cent. would mean a loss of £400 million to the Treasury in the first year, but that the gains would be £400 million in that first year, going up to £700 million in 10 years' time, from increased income tax and corporation tax, and savings in social security. Perhaps just as importantly in areas such as mine, which still have relatively high unemployment, 50, 000 new jobs would be created.
The report also highlighted the fact that in Ireland in the 1980s, having carefully considered the balance of advantage, the Government halved VAT on accommodation and meals, with a major impact on the holiday industry. That was confirmed to me when, with several of my Cornish colleagues, I met Government officials in Dublin this week.
The rate of VAT affects the relative value for money for UK and continental holidaymakers. Although there may be a good case for differences and discrepancies in the VAT rates on some commodities, people do not travel from London to France, or vice versa, to buy a newspaper simply because lower VAT makes it cheaper in one place than another. However, when it comes to holidays, the competition is intense.
Secondly, on regulation and overheads, it was extremely interesting to find that the Irish Government had tackled the matter with great alacrity and success. 1427 There are no water charges in Ireland. Compared with the south-west, where high water charges are imposed on our holiday industry, our competitors across the Irish sea have a major advantage. The same is true of local taxes. The uniform business rate can be a considerable imposition, particularly if it is set at a level that does not recognise the seasonal nature of the industry. The fire, hygiene and trade refuse charges imposed on the industry are a great deal higher than in other competitor countries on the continent or in Ireland.
Those penalties on legitimate businesses are made even worse because there is an degree of unfair competition at home. Any Member who represents a holiday area must know that the six-bed rule, and the pirates who exploit it, either by pretending that they have fewer than six beds or by ignoring the rule, are causing considerable difficulty. In opposition the Labour party said that it would deal with the discrepancy, but sadly, after three years of Labour government, the discrepancy still exists. The easiest way to deal with the problem would be to introduce local income tax. Account can then be taken of the ability to pay. Surely that must be at the root of a sensible local taxation policy.
Thirdly, there is the value of the pound. After agriculture, the industry worst affected by the failure to benefit from a stable currency environment must be the holiday industry. In Dublin I saw how well the holiday industry in that country was benefiting from being linked to the euro. That was very hard to take. There is a 20 per cent. competitive disadvantage to the United Kingdom holiday industry, and that is affecting a large part of the country—although perhaps not so much in London, where prices are higher anyway. It is certainly true of many of the more peripheral parts of the United Kingdom. The long delay in establishing a stable currency relationship will be devastating to the holiday industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), who takes a close interest in these matters, has asked the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting a number of questions. The Department has admitted that it is impossible to forecast the effects of exchange rates on the holiday industry. However, the omens are extremely bad. The evidence this year, in terms of the number of continental visitors to the south-west, including Cornwall, is that there is a real impact.
It is not all doom and gloom. I would hate to think that any right hon. or hon. Member leaving the Chamber today would not have his or her spirits lifted by the prospect of a happy holiday in Cornwall, so I shall be positive for a minute. First, we have a listening Minister. I pay tribute to her. The hon. Lady is coming to my constituency next week for at least the second time, and if I do not pay tribute to her, she might decide to go elsewhere. She is proving an effective advocate for what otherwise, I fear, is rather a Cinderella industry.
The three taskforces that have been set up—especially the resort taskforce, which my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay and for Southport (Mr. Fearn) have been urging to take action and to be more effective in getting real results—seem to be languishing in a bywater. There seems to be no effective reduction in regulation. Seaside resorts in particular have yet to see any real new investment or assistance.
The beach clean-up issue is in the news again this morning. It is a real problem. I absolve the occupants of the Government Front Bench from the problems that were 1428 caused by privatisation. Labour Members were on my side on that issue. We recognised from the outset that the privatisation of the water and sewage industry would impose intolerable burdens on some areas, not least because we are unable to take up the opportunities of EU funding that other countries, including Ireland, have had. The proposed legal action reported this morning must give the Government cause for real concern. I hope that it will mean that they will take action to help the worst affected areas.
On behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I shall respond briefly to some of the other points that have been made. I am struck by the way in which some themes have run through many speeches. Health and the environment have been mentioned very often today, as they have on previous occasions, as I am sure the Minister will acknowledge. The way in which we bring to Parliament our constituents' concerns on those subjects is important.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) talked about the health facilities for his constituents. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) referred to Harefield hospital. I think that we all recognise that that is a centre of excellence. Some of my constituents have received excellent treatment there. I hope that the Government will listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman.
What the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) said about the link between leisure, sporting opportunities, fitness and health was interesting. That is extremely important, as are the concerns about mobile phone masts and the health of children.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) referred to the connection between the environment, health and a landfill site in his constituency. Again, other hon. Members will have had similar experiences.
I was struck by the fact that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) talked about patients' complaints before we heard the very harrowing experience recounted by the hon. Member for Brent, North. Clearly there is a major problem. Every hon. Member will recognise that unless we can improve the speed and efficiency of the complaints system, especially when something so serious as the death of a child is involved, our constituents will not be happy, whatever funding goes into the health service. Until that matter is dealt with, there will be something basically wrong at the heart of the health service.
Today's speeches have been dominated by the personal contributions and obvious heartfelt sincerity of several hon. Members. I cannot ignore the contribution of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who, sadly, is not now in his place. I pay tribute to him; he is absolutely right to say that this country's public services benefit greatly from the personal contribution of huge numbers of individuals. We do not recognise that sufficiently. His very sincere and thoughtful contribution strikes echoes on both sides of the House.
On a lighter note, I will cherish for some time the statement by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) that the new Conservative-led council in his borough was "restoring" the difficulties of a former era. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings!
I shall detain the House no longer; I simply wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and every other Member a very relaxing and refreshing recess before Parliament reassembles in the autumn. I know that there are other 1429 strains and stresses, and that most of us will have a great work load, but I hope that the recess will at least provide some Members with an opportunity to come to the delectable Duchy of Cornwall, where I can assure all Members that their health with be restored—and it does not have to be reached by aeroplane.
§ Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)
I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution to the debate. I wish to raise two issues that are of particular concern to my constituents in Harlow and to apologise for the fact that I will not be able to stay for my hon. Friend the Minister's summing-up because I have a constituency engagement, but I have already spoken to him.
First, I wish to raise the crucially important issue of access to university education. I know from my own experience—I was the first member of my family to go to university—how enormously beneficial a university education can be in offering opportunities, broadening horizons and genuinely empowering people. It is to the Government's enormous credit that they want greatly to expand the proportion of our young people who have the opportunity of a university education.
The target to get 50 per cent. of the under-30s into higher education by 2010 is long overdue. The fact that, for the first time in a generation, funding for universities will be increased by 11 per cent. in real terms during this Parliament is to be welcomed. The fact, which was not much commented on at the time, that the per capita funding for students will increase, instead of decrease, under the comprehensive spending review is especially welcome. All of that is enormously beneficial, and none of it would have been possible were it not for the tough and difficult decision to introduce tuition fees that the Government took when they came to power.
I was a university manager for nine years before being elected to the House, and that decision gave me pause for thought. At the time, I had some qualms and concerns about it, but I eventually became convinced that there is genuinely no alternative way in which to get the funds that we need to expand the higher education system. I say that because the figures show that dealing with the problems that the Government faced in the university sector when they came to power—such as the per capita cut in student funding, student poverty and the cap on access at 30 per cent. of the eligible age range that the previous Government instituted—would have cost the equivalent of three or four pence on the standard rate of income tax. I, and many other Members, were persuaded that no Government of any party would levy such a tax increase and spend all the proceeds on the universities and their students.
By 2002, 50 per cent. of students will not be paying tuition fees. The Government have introduced a fairer and more progressive loans system. That difficult decision, which was made to fund expansion, was taken in the fairest way possible.
However, I am raising this issue today because I believe that the recent proposal in the Greenaway report, on behalf of the Russell group of universities, to allow universities to charge differential top-up fees would blow that compromise apart and be a significant step too far. 1430 The Russell group universities already regard themselves as the elite institutions of this country. I used to work for one of them. Many of them are determined to charge increased fees and, in the process, increase their perceived exclusivity. That would be enormously damaging.
It is worth looking at the evidence around the world. Australia has gone through an experience similar to ours. In 1989, the then Labour Government in Australia introduced a tuition fee system similar to our current one. It did not impact on access, just as ours is not impacting on access. However, in 1996, the then Conservative Government in Australia introduced differential top-up fees and seven Australian universities now charge full fees of more than £8,000 a year. That change has had predictable results: a drop in overall applications; a slump in applications by mature students; and, particularly worrying, a significant narrowing of the social backgrounds of students attending those universities.
The United States of America has a two-tier system based on differential top-up fees and allows universities to charge whatever the market will bear. Proponents of the American system here argue that bursaries and scholarships are available to support the poorest students. I am not convinced that that works. Even if one accepts the argument that bursaries for the poorest students are the way forward, that scenario is based on a system of philanthropic private donations to universities, which this country is light years away from achieving. I am not convinced that a system of charitable postgraduate donation would ever be fully accepted in this country, because we have a different social model and a different attitude, rightly, to welfare, taxation and spending.
Thus the evidence around the world shows that top-up fees have been damaging. Were we to introduce them in this country, we would run the huge risk of creating institutions that were accessible only to students from the most prosperous backgrounds, and everyone else would be denied access and be forced to go to universities regarded as second rate. We would also force institutions to choose what kind of university they wanted to be. The choice would be between having a socially inclusive student population and not receiving additional funding, or receiving additional funding through top-up fees.
I refuse to accept the implication of the Greenaway report on behalf of the Russell group of universities that the best in higher education is limited to a small group of elite institutions—Oxford, Cambridge, University college London and the rest—and that those are the only ones that need additional funding.
When the proposals were first made, about a year ago, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, while making clear his opposition to top-up fees, challenged the Russell group to engage in an open and honest debate and to justify how top-up fees would be consistent with expanded access. I welcome the challenge that he laid down because it put the ball firmly in the Russell group's court, and the Greenaway report is the group's response to that challenge. I have read and reread the report, and the only real suggestion that it comes up with to deal with that challenge is the scholarship proposal, but it gives no detail whatever of how that would genuinely meet the challenge of giving poor students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds a university education.
1431 It is clear from the report that the universities have not even reached first base in terms of meeting the Secretary of State's challenge. The silence from the Russell group since the report's publication makes it plain that the universities are split. I think that, having noted the lack of substance in the proposals, many are resiling from the proposition that top-up fees are the answer.
I approve of the Government's present stance. The Secretary of State has made it clear that the Government still oppose top-up fees, as the Prime Minister did here on Wednesday. Yesterday, I tabled early-day motion 1049, which opposes the Greenaway proposals and which was signed by 100 Labour Members. I put it together in about a week: I have never found it easier to obtain support for an early-day motion. That demonstrates the strength of feeling in the Labour party.
I think it right to oppose the Russell group's proposals, not just in principle, but politically. Opposing them creates either clear blue water or clear red water between us and the Conservative party. We oppose top-up fees, while the Conservatives have a different view. The Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 created the present system of tuition fees. At an early stage in the passage of the Bill, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), the then Opposition spokesman, made it abundantly clear that the Conservative party wanted to retain the option of top-up fees.
The second issue is pensions. I do not think that, since April, so much concern has been expressed on doorsteps in my constituency, and elsewhere, as has been expressed about the pensions increase. There was a perception on the part of some pensioners—a false perception in my view, but nevertheless a perception—that the 75p a week increase indicated the Government's disregard for pensioners' needs. I fear that that perception has obscured the Government's real achievement.
Since the general election, we have added £6.5 billion to pensions. We have done far more for pensioners than the last Government ever did. The winter fuel allowance, the free television licence, the reintroduction of free eye tests—which has led to 3, 000 additional eye tests in my constituency—and, crucially, the minimum pension guarantee targeted at the poorest 20 per cent., are significant measures. The Conservative party had 18 years in which to introduce them, but it did not do so.
This is worth saying, in view of the Conservatives' false protestations. Pensioners, and people generally, do not judge politicians by their words; they judge them by their actions. During its longest uninterrupted period of peacetime office, the Conservative party had the opportunity to do something about pensions, but it did nothing.
Pensioners in my constituency have criticised the Government with regard to pensions over the past few months, but in all that time not one has said to me, "We believe the Conservatives would do better." They know from their experience that that is not true. Nevertheless, I believe that we must do more for pensioners. We said at the last election that we wanted them to share in growing prosperity. We have made a start—indeed, I have never known such prosperous times in most of my adult life—but we have the opportunity to do more. Let me give three examples.
First, I welcome the Government's review of the minimum pension guarantee, and the attempt to taper extra income to pensioners above income support levels. 1432 That is crucial, because it deals with the widespread perception among pensioners that people who play by the rules and save are penalised because they get no additional state help.
However, I urge the Government and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to go further and raise the basic state pension substantially this year. That is the right thing to do, but it is also necessary politically: we must convince pensioners that we are on their side.
In addition, I urge the Government to consider restoring the link between pensions and earnings as soon as possible. That is not a fashionable view in the House. The Conservative party opposes the restoration of that link, which the then Conservative Government broke in 1980. The present Government are not yet convinced about restoring the link, and although the Liberal Democrats talk a lot about pensions, the detail of their record is revealing.
The Liberal Democrat general election manifesto did not call for the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings. Although the party has attempted to rewrite that and say that matters have moved on, its alternative Budget submission this year contained no costed commitment to restore the link. That was puzzling, given that leaflets pushed through my door in Harlow stated that the party was in favour of restoring the link.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) have both talked about pensioners, but does he not agree that the Government's minimum income guarantee for pensioners is meaningless as long as only pensioners claiming income support qualify for it? Is not it high time that the poorest pensioners should not have to rely on any form of benefit, and that they should be able to survive on the state pension as a minimum income?
§ Mr. Rammell
I welcome the fact that mine is the first speech today to attract an intervention. The minimum pension guarantee is paid through income support, and the Government are launching the biggest ever advertising campaign to ensure that pensioners apply for it. That is vital, as some pensioners—especially the most elderly—may not be aware that they can claim it, or may find the relevant forms difficult to complete.
The Government have been in power for three years; is what the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said the view of his party? If so, why did the previous Conservative Government introduce no proposals along those lines in the 18 years that they were in power? Claims made in opposition ring hollow in such circumstances.
§ Mr. Rammell
I will not give way, even to a Labour Member, as other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
Restoring the link between pensions and earnings is the best way to ensure that pensioners share in prosperity as the economy grows. However, there is a longer-term 1433 problem. The Government acted with the best of intentions when they introduced the minimum pension guarantee but, if the basic state pension remains indexed only to prices, the gap between it and the minimum pension guarantee will grow smaller. As a result, more people will become eligible for the minimum pension guarantee, and therefore for means-tested benefits.
In the longer term, that will reduce the incentive to save. I am not sure that that is the objective that the Government set out to attain when they made the essential and very welcome changes with regard to the minimum pension guarantee. I know that the Treasury has made projections about the consequences and cost of restoring the link between pensions and earnings, and I acknowledge that money has to come from somewhere.
However, I think it is possible to restore the link in practice, even if we do not restore it in principle. By that, I mean that we have to provide the public expenditure required, but that part of the problem is confidence in the City and elsewhere that our longer-term public spending plans and projections of public spending as a proportion of national income add up. If we make that longer-term commitment, the figures rise and there is a confidence problem. If we uprate pensions yearly according to the increase in wages instead of prices, we will get a better and shorter-term solution.
The Government have done far more for pensioners than the Conservative Government ever did, but I want us to go further and introduce a substantial rise in the basic state pension this year. I should like us to consider the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings. If that could all be achieved by the time we come back from the summer recess, I would be enormously grateful.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
I am delighted to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in this summer Adjournment debate. Before I raise two constituency issues that have national implications, I shall respond to the hon. Members for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) and for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), who have been trying to curry favour with pensioners by suggesting that the Labour party will give them a better deal than the Conservative party will. They have both misrepresented my party's views, as articulated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). Under his proposals, pensioners over 75 would have £10 a week more in certain circumstances. To say that we have no proposals to improve the lot of pensioners is simply not true.
§ Mr. Rammell
I do not want to prolong this discussion, but is the hon. Gentleman aware of the House of Commons Library analysis showing that his party's proposal would simply take money from one pocket and put it into another? It would raise the income of pensioners over the age of 75 by only 18p a week.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
I do not accept that. As I understand it, my right hon. Friend's proposals involve £300 million of new money. What is more, they would reduce the bureaucracy that pensioners face when they have to claim for payments. I came across a pensioner in 1434 my constituency the other day who had a degree in social sciences. She said that by the time she had ploughed through the five pages of gobbledegook to claim the winter fuel payment, she still did not understand it. If she cannot understand it, that shows that there must be red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy. We will cut through some of that unnecessary red tape, and thereby reduce the cost of government. However, I do not want to be tempted too far down that line.
The first issue I want to raise concerns the National Fire College at Moreton-in-Marsh. I obtained a leak from the commandant of the college, Mr. Terry Glossop, to whom I pay tribute. He was brought in after the college had been making losses for years and had had problems with the Home Office. He introduced a new management team, turned the budget round, and the college is now making a profit.
Faced with the problem of the college, the Labour Government announced an options review when it came to power in 1997. It has taken all this time to come to a conclusion on that review. I heard from the commandant yesterday that the Government were planning to answer a parliamentary question. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), confirmed that. I tabled a written question yesterday. The answer still has not come through: I gather that there is some problem with the drafting. I thank the Minister for what I believe will be in that answer, which is that the college is to remain open. My constituents will be very grateful for that. They will be pleased that the college has a future training United Kingdom firefighters, and that the Government are considering transferring defence firefighting training to the college, thus ensuring it an even better future. That was also part of the previous Government's proposals for the college.
The problem now is that, having taken three years to announce the conclusion of the review, the Government intend to bring in consultants to work out the way forward. Although my constituents will be pleased that the college is to remain open, there is still no assurance on its way forward.
The college needs that assurance rapidly. Foreign firefighters thinking of coming to the college have to know what facilities the college is likely to be able to offer. The college desperately needs investment in new facilities, but it cannot obtain it until the consultants' report has been finalised. I therefore urge the Minister to urge Home Office Ministers to get on with ensuring completion of the consultants' report, so that my constituents can know the way forward for the college.
The second, and more substantive, issue that I wish to raise concerns the strategic road A419/A417. I shall try to describe to the House just where the road is, the problems, and then, very briefly, the solution. If one were travelling westwards from London on the M4, left the M4 at Swindon and took the A419/A417—almost completely on dual carriageway—one would reach the M5 at Gloucester. The road bisects the triangle that would be created if one went on the M4 all the way down to Bristol and then up the M5. The road saves about 50 miles compared with following that triangle.
1435 One can drive all the way from Sicily, in southern Italy, to Glasgow on dual carriageways, with the exception of two little links. The first is at Blundson, outside Swindon. I think that that link will be dealt with soon because Swindon is such a rapidly expanding city.
The other link is one of the most environmentally difficult bits of necessary road building in this country. Its environmental significance is similar to that of Twyford down. It is situated right at the top of the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty, on the scarp that goes down into the Cheltenham and Gloucester valley. Standing on the top of that scarp, one has one of the best views in the country. It is a magnificent bit of country. The problem is that no one has yet found a satisfactory way of building a safe dual carriageway over the top of that hill.
We have already had fatalities on the road, and I believe that we shall have more. The road must be completed urgently. Minor works are being proposed, but they are really only tinkering at the edges. They include building a right-hand lane for turning into the Golden Hart pub at Nettleton Bottom; a 40 mph restriction at Stockwell lane; and minor traffic calming as one enters Stockwell. Those minor works will in no way affect the problems.
There are three problems. The first is that there have been fatalities on the single-track road at Nettleton Bottom. We had an horrific case in which an articulated lorry shunted a car into the pub wall and the car's occupants were all killed. There have been other fatalities.
The second problem is that we have very considerable congestion, in the middle of what I call the missing link, at the Air Balloon pub. On a busy summer's morning, the traffic queues can extend six miles towards Cirencester. It is a very considerable environmental problem for my constituents.
The third problem is that not only do my constituents have to put up with long traffic queues—which are caused by national traffic on a national motorway system and are not generated by them—and deal with the fatalities, but some cars leave the road and start, as they say in the trade, rat running through some beautiful Cotswolds villages. It is a very considerable strategic national problem. It is also quite capable of solution.
The most expensive but best solution, which has been investigated by the consulting engineers Mott MacDonald in a desktop study, would be a tunnel. Mott MacDonald estimates that the tunnel would cost about £75 million to £100 million. I have no doubt whatsoever that if we were in France or Switzerland, we would adopt the tunnel solution, because it is by far the most environmentally friendly solution to this national strategic road problem. However, I accept that, in a practical and pragmatic world, that is unlikely ever to happen in this country. One therefore needs to look for other solutions.
The county council, with the Highways Agency and the Government office for the south west, has identified a readily identifiable solution. I urge them all now to get together to pursue that solution, which is a dual carriageway relief road at Nettleton Bottom, a proper roundabout and gyratory system at the Air Balloon pub, and—perhaps the most difficult of all—a fourth lane up Crickley Hill.
Those solutions have been costed at less than £25 million. That sounds a great deal of money, but, in the context of a national road network, I urge all those 1436 agencies that I have already mentioned—the county council highways department, the Government office for the south west, the regional development agency and the Highways Agency—to get together to examine the solution, be ambitious and include It in the 10-year road plan.
The money was announced by the Chancellor last week; the solution is perfectly feasible, and should be effected. I hope that my contribution today will hasten a solution so that too many more fatalities do not occur in my constituency before something is done.
§ 1 pm
§ Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West)
I want to consider some aspects of mental health services, which are important to some of my constituents. I know that they are important because three constituents came to see me here on 7 June. They came with approximately 2, 000 others from all over England and Wales as part of a lobby that the Mental Health Alliance organised. The alliance is a consortium of 51 organisations which represent mental health service users, carers, professionals and service providers. It includes many well respected names and organisations in mental health.
I found through talking to other hon. Members that my three north-west Bristol residents, Judy, Phil and Gladys, were typical of the lobbyists: they were gentle, polite, well briefed but persistent in making their points and in asking why mental health service users seemed to be treated differently by the national health service from those with other forms of illness.
A previous Secretary of State said that mental illness is as common as asthma. Yet it is not well understood. People are frightened of it, and it carries a stigma that adds to the burden of illness. As part of a programme to create modern and dependable health and social services, the Government want radical change to improve the treatment of mental illness. They want to provide a system in which patients, carers and the public are safe, and security and support are available to all who need it.
A 21st century service must be aimed at reducing the stigma of mental illness, encouraging social inclusion, supporting patients when they return to work and providing a balance between safety, sound treatment and supporting measures. The Government have made a good start by increasing resources for mental health services and giving clear guidance about the way in which services should be run and, in many cases, improved.
Several documents contribute to the Government's policy. They include "Modernising Mental Health Strategy", a Government strategy document published in 1998; "The Mental Health National Service Framework", which was published last year; and the Green Paper on the reform of the Mental Health Acts of 1959 and 1983. The Green Paper followed last year's publication of the expert committee's findings on the reforms.
Despite all that activity, mental health service users continue to have severe reservations about the services on offer and those proposed for the future. They want a reduction in the use of compulsory powers, an individual enforceable right to a comprehensive assessment of need—and for those needs to be met with good and effective services—and a free independent advocacy service. They want new legislation to ensure that, as far as possible, people are allowed to make their own treatment 1437 decisions, and to protect properly those deemed to lack the capacity to make such decisions, and the right to draw up legally enforceable advance statements on their care and who should be involved in it. They also want full information on any proposed treatment, and informed consent to be sought in every case. Although they support the formation of new independent tribunals, such bodies must reflect the community they serve and must include people with broad experience, including service users, who must be properly trained.
Judy, Phil and Gladys focused on the first two of those points—compulsory treatment and the right to a comprehensive service—and the need to ensure that appropriate and effective medication is available without artificial restrictions. The aim of any new legislation should be to reduce the need for the use of compulsory powers. In many cases, compulsion is a negative experience for users of services; It risks harming their psychological well-being and their relationships with family, friends and mental health professionals. It can be highly stigmatising, and should be used only as a last resort and in strictly limited circumstances.
I accept that compulsion may be needed in some cases to protect others from harm. However, I share the expert committee's concerns about overplaying the issue of public safety. Its report states:It is important to emphasise that the legislative response to the perceived danger posed by people with a mental disorder must be proportionate to the actual risk.The vast majority of violent crimes in this country—about 95 per cent. of homicides—are committed by people who do not have mental health problems. The proportion of homicides committed by people with a mental illness has gone down by 3 per cent. each year since 1957.
I share the committee'swish to avoid extending the scope of compulsion to situations in the community where it is not needed and where it would be counter-productive.The Government have said that they do not intend to increase the number of people subject to compulsion. However, there is concern that the criteria set out in the Green Paper, which are wider than those recommended by the expert committee, would potentially extend compulsion to almost all those in contact with secondary psychiatric services who disagree with their doctor. That would be a vast extension of the scope of current powers.
New legislation should offer people an individual enforceable right to a comprehensive assessment of their needs and to have their identified needs met with good quality and effective services. Recently, a survey undertaken by the National Schizophrenia Fellowship found that more than one in three people had been turned away when seeking help. One in four people seeking hospital admission had been refused. Black people and those from ethnic minorities are less likely than white people to obtain help that is relevant to their needs. They are more likely to be subject to compulsory powers and other coercive treatment, and to suffer unmet need.
Many of those who are turned away from services find that their mental health deteriorates to the point where they are subject to compulsory admission. The introduction of rights to assessment and to services could encourage earlier treatment, thus reducing the need for 1438 compulsory powers. The Government's expert committee, set up to review the Mental Health Acts, proposed a right to assessment of mental health needs and stated that that should include a system for recording any unmet assessed needs.
The Government rejected that recommendation, arguing that the national service framework includes a requirement for any service user with a common mental health problem who contacts their primary health team to have their mental health needs identified and assessed. However, that does not give individuals an enforceable right to such an assessment; nor does it include a procedure for recording unmet need. Without an enforceable right to assessment, the current situation, in which people are turned away from services, is unlikely to change.
Access to appropriate and effective medication is also important. Regrettably, a number of people do not receive that. In recent years, several new medicines, known as atypical anti-psychotics, have become available for the treatment of schizophrenia. Those medicines significantly improve the quality of life for patients. They have a more favourable effect on both positive and negative symptoms and there are fewer side effects. There is better compliance than with the older, typical medications.
The older typical anti-psychotic treatments can have horrendous side effects—including difficulties with movement and uncontrollable shaking—some of which are irreversible even when the patient has come off the medication. That makes patients reluctant to continue with their treatment and often results in relapses and returning to hospital.
The new medicines offer better value for money than the older treatments, certainly over the medium to long term. The Government's mental health strategy document recognises the benefits of the new atypicals, and the 1999 independent report "Safer Services—A Report of the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness" found that too many patients were prescribed older medicines and that there was a subsequent lack of compliance.
The Government are making extra resources available to assist in meeting the demands for new drugs and to train staff. People with schizophrenia should be treated fairly and prescribed the most appropriate medication, irrespective of where they live. Nevertheless, there is widespread evidence and concern that there are many gaps in service provision at a local level, that funding is inadequate and that many patients are being denied access to effective modern treatments.
At this time when, as we heard yesterday, incredibly exciting things are about to happen in the national health service, and when services for people with mental health problems are very much on the agenda, I am glad to have had the chance to raise the concerns of my three constituents—and many others—with my hon. Friend the Minister. I urge him to raise the points as strongly as he can with the appropriate Ministers at the Department of Health and the Home Office.
§ Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) to his new portfolio. I am sure that he will show as much expertise in this post as he did in his previous one.
1439 I was going to use this important opportunity to raise one subject, but other matters have come to mind. These debates are a useful forum for Back Benchers to raise all manner of subjects. I do not think that I could be called in any sense of the word a moderniser, because I am the fourth generation in the family furniture business and could probably be described as an hereditary retailer—and I know the views of Labour Members on hereditaries. Although I do not think that I can normally be classed as a moderniser, I suggest to the Minister that there might be opportunities to have one or two more such debates in the parliamentary year. They give Back Benchers the opportunity not only to express their views, but to listen to the views of others. Although the more traditional Adjournment debates provide for such opportunities, they are not always used in that way. This debate is an interesting and useful exercise for us all.
I echo the words of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), about Harefield hospital. I pay tribute to the excellent work and sincere efforts that he has made on behalf of the hospital. The campaign has been felt acutely throughout the area and not just within the immediate confines of Harefield. My constituents lobby on the matter and the campaign has all-party support.
As hon. Members may know, Harefield was, until the general election, part of the Uxbridge constituency. My predecessor, the much-respected Sir Michael Shersby, was laid to rest in Harefield churchyard, and anyone who has visited the church will know why my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood was correct to describe the area as rural Middlesex.
Sometimes, when I sit on these Benches. the words of a Gilbert and Sullivan song come to mind. I think of a lotOf dull MPs in close proximity,All thinking for themselves is whatNo man can face with equanimity.Obviously, today's debate is a notable exception.
As a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, I remember that one of my first deeds on entering the House was to help the all-party Gilbert and Sullivan group to lobby the Arts Council for some money for the D'Oyly Carte company. That fell on deaf ears, but hearing in mind that the Arts Council is now a little better off, will the Minister point out to his colleagues in the appropriate Department the need for some middle and lowbrow entertainment, as well as the rather highbrow stuff that sometimes passes over my head? Perhaps we should at some stage consider whether there should be not just the national opera houses but a national light opera house. Light opera is very often an entry into—as people would tell us—more sophisticated music, although the likes of Birtwhistle and so forth are still a long way above my head.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and others have raised some transport problems. Government planning guidance is increasingly making parking provision in Uxbridge difficult. Although I understand the aims involved, the guidance is stifling development in town centres, especially before suitable local public transport options have been implemented. As such options seem to be a long way off, can some of the guidance be relaxed in the short term so that town centres are not entirely killed off?
I raised with the Deputy Prime Minister on the Floor of the House some months ago the possibility of extending the Central line to Uxbridge—a siding comes 1440 very close to the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines. I was told by the Deputy Prime Minister that the Government considered the matter when they first came to office and rejected it. However, a subsequent exchange of letters between myself and his Department has revealed that, in fact, the Government did not consider the matter, but had they done so, they would have rejected it. I wonder whether it might sometimes be a good idea to admit such things. Such ideas, which have sometimes been around for a long time, should be considered before they are rejected out of hand.
Although we are still very much in the cricket season, I should like to use this opportunity to press the Minister to mention to Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport not only D'Oyly Carte but sport. I know that grassroots sport and football have been in the news and that work is being done on the issue, but I would like a little more emphasis on non-league football. Not only is such sport an opportunity for many to enjoy supporting their local side, but it can play an important community function.
I am lucky in having in Uxbridge the excellent Ryman division one team, which is aptly named Uxbridge. We have been delighted to be joined in that division—we may leave them behind when we are promoted to the premier next season—by the team of Northwood in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, and by Yeading, which plays in the other constituency that covers Hillingdon. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) puts too much emphasis on Hayes FC in the Nationwide conference, but he must not forget poor old Yeading.
Finally I turn to the more serious matter on which I originally intended to say just a few words. As we go away for the summer recess, I take hon. Members' minds back to last year and the NATO action in Yugoslavia. Since then, we have heard little of what has happened in Serbia, Yugoslavia or, indeed, Kosovo, as only a small amount of information is coming out. I remember some of the wilder claims and statements made during the course of the NATO action, and I should like to know a little more about what is happening. I hope that there will be a debate on the subject soon after we return.
Of course, the Select Committees on Defence and on Foreign Affairs have produced reports, some of which contain pretty damning statements, but I do not want to dwell on those now, but on the humanitarian aspect. As many of us, hopefully, are leaving for a break with our families, we should bear in mind the plight of refugees in Yugoslavia. There are more refugees in Yugoslavia than any other European country. As a result of sanctions and the NATO sanction, there is a great deal of deprivation in Serbia. One of the most alarming statistics that I heard recently was that 68 per cent. of the population cannot afford three proper meals a day. Obviously, the innocent and most vulnerable will suffer, not Milosevic's party elite.
The International Red Cross is doing work in Serbia, and, within that, the British Red Cross is doing what it can. However, there is a case to be made for a small change in British policy, as isolating the country from all significant spheres of activity is damaging those people who want to support change to a more western form of democracy. Most of the intelligentsia have left and, in many respects, the aims of the west's action have not been achieved—indeed, the very opposite has been achieved. 1441 Without being too radical, I think that we should start by having links at an ordinary level, so that the Yugoslav people realise that the British people have no argument with them. Perhaps we could have sporting and cultural links and, in time, trade links.
There is a danger of being seen to support a regime which most if not all people in this country are against. However, it is time to look seriously at what is happening. Serbia is probably the most important country in that region, and we must consider the Balkan area for the sake of Europe's security and peace. We cannot afford to ignore that region any longer.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. There are about 35 minutes remaining before winding-up speeches are due to begin. I think that four hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If there is mutual self-restraint, we shall accommodate everybody.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in our debate. Listening to today's contributions, one realises that those who characterise pre-recess debates as a sort of nerds' corner clearly have not had the opportunity to pay attention to the excellent points made by hon. Members. Those who heard my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) describe a moving case involving the death of a young constituent will realise just how valuable these opportunities are for all of us.
We are about to go into a long recess and, to be perfectly honest, I want to have a quick whinge. Madam Speaker spoke about cynicism in relation to Parliament, especially the House of Commons, and the description of the long recess as a holiday tends to encourage cynicism. This morning I listened to "Yesterday in Parliament" and heard Rob Orchard and his fellow presenter referring to Members of Parliament going off on holiday to the beach—that is difficult for me in West Ham, which is landlocked—and taking their buckets and spades. That is one of the most ridiculous cliches that journalists use when describing the long summer recess.
I am not unique in terms of my holiday plans. I will have two weeks off, and the rest of the time I will be in my constituency here in London. My constituency office will be functioning daily, and staff holidays are organised so that it will be there every day during a normal working week. Post will be coming in and people will be working here in Westminster. Advice sessions will be held. To describe the long recess as a holiday is untrue, misleading, and tends to encourage that cynicism among voters who feel that we are all about to disappear to a beach to drink vast quantities of pina coladas and enjoy ourselves. I do not know how many Members of Parliament will be in that fortunate position.
§ Mr. Grieve
I will be going away with buckets and spades, but as they are the buckets and spades of my four-year-old and my six-year-old, I count that as work.
§ Mr. Banks
I do not envy the hon. Gentleman in that regard. However, "Yesterday in Parliament" referred to 1442 Members of Parliament and their buckets and spades. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman does when he is on holiday; perhaps he helps his children to dig holes in the sand and build castles, which seems like good training for an Opposition politician. I wish him well, but I doubt whether he will be doing that for the next three months; if he will, he may develop muscles that I have not previously detected on his otherwise slim torso.
I plead with journalists not to perpetuate the myth that the recess is a holiday. They should come to the wonderful area of Stratford—not upon Avon, but in the east end of London—where they will see my staff and myself working hard through the recess, after our holidays.
The other item that I wish to raise has vexed the House considerably in recent days—the role of the Speaker and the election of the Speaker when we return on 23 October. Madam Speaker left us not only with regrets about her departure, but with rather a big problem in terms of finding a successor. I believe that this is a matter that should be determined not by this Parliament but by the next one. That is my opinion, but I suspect that it is not shared by the majority of Members.
Having the election of the Speaker on the very first day we return, 23 October, is awkward. For example, despite what I have just said about the recess, hon. Members do go our different ways and lose contact with one another until our party conferences. Keeping in touch during the recess to discuss the rival merits of different candidates becomes difficult. The list of candidates appears to be growing longer by the day. At present, there seem to be about a dozen people up for the job. Unfortunately, I do not know who they all are. It would be helpful—since I assume that they are all looking for support—if they identified themselves. Perhaps they have done so to their own supporters, but it would be useful if we all knew.
The way in which we are approaching the election of a Speaker leaves far too much to chance, and I very much regret that. There should have been a full day's debate on the role of Speaker and what we as Back-Bench Members—and, indeed, all Members—expect from our Speaker, who, after all, will occupy that distinguished position for five, seven, eight or 10 years. Before the election, we should have an opportunity to describe the sort of person we would like to see occupying the Chair.
There are a number of early-day motions on the subject, which I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will have noted. That is evidence of the concern in the House about the way in which we are approaching the significant matter of the election.
I do not believe that there should be hustings. A candidate who plays to the crowd, so to speak, even when the crowd happens to be Members of Parliament, is not necessarily the person best suited to the job. None the less, the candidates should be given, if they wish, some opportunity to declare themselves and their opinions on the subjects that exercise us—modernisation, the role of Back Benchers, and keeping the Executive under some sort of control, which we always talk about but never manage to achieve; I doubt that we ever will. If we had a full day's debate, putative Speakers would have the opportunity to declare themselves on those important matters.
1443 Will my hon. Friend consider giving us the opportunity of such a debate by arranging for the House to return on Friday 20 October, before we move to the election of the Speaker on 23 October? Perhaps he will respond to that proposal when he sums up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) yesterday asked whether the Procedure Committee should be invited to sit during the recess to consider the machinery for the election of the Speaker. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I would be prepared to give up my time—which, clearly, I will not be spending on the beach, with or without bucket and spade—to consider that important matter. The Procedure Committee has not examined it since 1996.
Finally, if none of those proposals finds favour with my hon. Friend or with my colleagues, perhaps Madam Speaker could be asked to invite those candidates of whom she is aware—they could identify themselves to her—to send right hon. and hon. Members during the recess a statement of their intent, and of their views on the issues which they know concern Members of Parliament.
Electing someone to the position of Speaker of the House, which is one of the oldest and most distinguished, responsible and admired positions in the country, should be approached with seriousness. We are doing that, but we should be able to approach the task with more deliberation, and give candidates a clear indication of the qualities that we seek in the person who will occupy the Chair in which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are sitting, and which our present Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, has occupied with such distinction during her eight years.
§ Sir Richard Body (Boston and Skegness)
I hope that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) will forgive me if I do not follow him—although on the subject of the speakership, if only he would suppress some of his prejudices and give us more of his wit, I would be one of those dragging him forcibly from the Back Benches into the Chair.
I revert to a subject on which two hon. Members have already spoken—the national health service. Although the new announcement contains many good features, there are two omissions, which I draw to the attention of those on the Treasury Bench.
The first is the growing shortage of general practitioners, which will become increasingly apparent in the coming decade. In the average practice there are probably five or six GPs, of whom perhaps only one is a woman doctor. One might think that the ratio of men doctors to women doctors should be 50:50. Our teaching hospitals are recruiting as fairly as they can, and none of us would object to an intake of 50 per cent. female students and 50 per cent. male students.
Theoretically that is fine, but in practice it is causing a shortage, because inevitably far too many women doctors drop out of the profession on marriage or on having children. Too often they find it difficult to return. If they are married, they have to find a practice near where their husband can find employment, which may be in another occupation. That presents enormous difficulties for practices that want to increase the number of women doctors in their partnership.
One partnership in my constituency has the average number of partners—six. It set out with the principle of reverse, or positive, discrimination. It said, "We will 1444 exclude any man. We will take only a woman doctor into the partnership this time." There were several applicants, but none of them was able to join the partnership because they were all married and there were no opportunities for their husbands to find employment in the area.
The partnership pointed out to me, as have other GPs, that there will be a growing problem. The shortage of GPs available to practise will become greater. The Government must start to consider what will happen about 10 years from now. We cannot retain the ratio of 6:1 or 5:1 in most practices, when the male-female ratio among those who are qualifying is 50:50. It does not work out. I hope that there will be a new policy in the national health service to enable those who have had to leave a practice for a while to take a refresher course, or whatever, in our hospitals. That would help them to come back. There are many new developments in medicine, and many women, having temporarily left the profession, even for a few years, feel diffident about coming back. They feel that they are not sufficiently up to date.
Another problem is the way in which so many cancer patients are being treated, once it is obvious in the view of specialists that they are beyond immediate cure. I suppose that all of us received a letter recently—it may have moved us—from a woman who was told that she was going home to die. That was five years ago, but she is still alive. That is because she turned to alternative treatment. She was admitted to the St. Catherine hospital, which is one of the two places where cancer patients receive a treatment which some practitioners dismiss as cranky. It is holistic, and treats patients medically, spiritually and in other ways.
I raise the issue because eight years ago someone who has been a friend of mine for many years was diagnosed as having a very serious form of cancer. He was told that his life could perhaps be prolonged with chemotherapy, but that he must expect his end to come in less than two years. He rejected the chemotherapy and instead went to an alternative establishment. Not only is he still alive, but he is extremely active. He is 79, and is on a lecture tour in Tokyo. Some would say that that was a remarkable recovery.
Alternative treatment is available. Inevitably, it costs a certain amount of money. I would hope that the NHS could be sufficiently broad-minded to appreciate what it can do. Obviously it does not succeed in every case, but the number of its successes is remarkable. I hope that the Health Ministers and those advise the Department will take a more sympathetic view of those treatments, which have proved successful for so many people.
The other matter that I should like to raise—which is very different, but is of increasing concern in my constituency—is the way in which the minimum wage is failing. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) says no, but I wish that he could visit my constituency and see what is happening there. I may be being unfair to him, but he may be one of those who turns a blind eye to the illegal immigrants who are slipping into the black economy in their thousands. I cannot believe that he welcomes that, because when they get into the black economy, they are not paid the minimum rate.
People in my constituency are recruited to work in gangs by rogue gangmasters—not the good, decent ones, to whom I have no objection. They often come from the 1445 criminal classes, as the police have confirmed to me, and there are increasingly large numbers of them. Such gangs are required in my constituency, where seasonal labour is immensely important to the growing and processing of vegetable crops. They are taken to the factories, one of which sometimes employs 4, 000 a day; others employ perhaps only hundreds. There is scope for illegal immigrants to get into those gangs, but they are paid less than £2 an hour.
The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West mocks me, but he would be the last to support those illegal immigrants being recruited by gangmasters and paid less than £2 an hour. That is bad enough for the immigrants, but I urge him to believe that it is pretty unfair on my law-abiding constituents, who do not wish to be in the black economy and who cannot live on a wage of less than £2 an hour.
Just over a month ago, I wrote to the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities to draw her attention to that important problem. Yesterday I received a reply, not from her, but from someone in the ministerial correspondence unit. It had taken more than four weeks to tell me that the matter would be referred to the Home Office because it was a matter for the Home Secretary. I have been banging on about illegal immigrants for a long time, and I am well aware—we all are—that that is a matter for the Home Office. However, I am emphasising the other side of the coin, which is a matter for the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities.
It is no good hon. Members saying how wonderful the minimum wage is; it may be, but only for those who are not in the black economy. The black economy is increasing in the tourist trade. Skegness, in my constituency, is a marvellous place for a holiday. Come to Skeggy. I shall be there with my grandchildren, although not with my bucket and spade. Illegal immigrants are employed casually in some places there. I will not name them; I do not want to get them into trouble at the moment.
We need the casual labour provided by such gangs, and there is nothing wrong with the gangmaster system, provided that the gangmasters are honest, well known in the locality and normally recruit members of their own families and their neighbours. They do a decent job when they do not face unfair competition from the rogue gangmasters, who have often moved in from places such as Sheffield, Mansfield and Grimsby, and who recruit the kind of people whom we do not want. I hope that the Minister will urge the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities to look into that matter as a matter of urgency.
§ Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)
Not only were many of the comments of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) offensive, but he did not even have the courtesy to be here at the start of the debate. I caught the 7.40 train to be here on time to make points to Ministers, and I intend to make them.
I rise on this end-of-term occasion to draw the House's attention in general, and that of Ministers in particular, to the serious problems facing some of our great public services in respect of staff recruitment and retention.
1446 I am of course delighted that Reading, as the capital of the Thames valley, is an economic success story. We have the thriving and bustling Oracle shopping centre, which is the envy of the region, and we have virtually no unemployment. Only yesterday, I learned of a local computer software company that is offering £1,000 cash bonuses to members of staff who can find a friend to recruit to the company. When the new giant Green Park business complex is completed next to junction 11 of the M4, another 5,000 new jobs will be created. Goodness knows where the staff will come from to fill those vacancies.
Reading is a new Labour success story, but the price of that success is considerable. The insanely high cost of home ownership, not just in my constituency but in large parts of the southeast of England, is putting house purchase beyond the reach of many key public sector workers, including newly qualified nurses, teachers, firefighters, police officers and many local authority employees. In my constituency, a simple two-up two-down terraced house goes for between £90,000 and £100,000. Those properties, which were built for railway workers and Huntley and Palmer's biscuit factory workers, are now well beyond the reach of the qualified, professional people who keep our essential public services running.
To buy a house in my constituency, a first-time purchaser needs to earn in the region of £24,000 to £25,000 a year. How can a newly qualified teacher on £19,000 achieve that? How are police officers, whose salaries start at £16,000 and rise to £18,000 after two years, supposed to achieve that? Firefighters earn between £15,000 and £17,000, and nurses earn much less.
Problems apply not only at that end of the wage scale. Reading borough council has taken six months not to recruit a head of housing and social services at a salary of some £60,000. Clearly, house prices are not a factor in that case, but it shows the pressure on the job market.
Local schools face the real possibility of having to shut classes next September through lack of teachers. There has been a tradition of firefighters having second jobs, although the problem may be less well known in my area. I have highlighted in the Chamber before the insane situation of two firefighters in my constituency, one of whom commutes from Lincoln and the other of whom commutes from north Dorset, because those are the only regions in which they can afford to buy houses.
We all love nurses and want to see more in the NHS. We have been promised 7, 000 new nurses in the new NHS plan. However, if it is to be a truly national plan, those nurses will need to be able to seek employment in all corners of the country.
My local police force, Thames Valley, has been hardest hit by the shortage in affordable housing and the previous Government's actions. In 1996, police numbers fell to an all-time low: 3, 674 officers. Luckily, they have now risen a bit to 3, 783. The fall was the result of the change in the funding formula by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), which cost some 200 officers overnight. In Reading, that was further compounded by Thames Valley police force's total resource allocation formula, which cost us some 40 to 50 officers. Worst of all was the previous Government's ill-advised decision to implement the Sheehy report, which got rid of the police housing 1447 allowance so that officers joining the service after 1 September 1994 were patrolling the beat with senior colleagues who were picking up £4,800 more than they were. No wonder we are reaping the rewards of those ill-thought-out policies.
I am glad that the Home Secretary and the Chancellor have put in extra resources. As a result of the crime-fighting fund, we shall have an additional 200 officers, the bulk this year and the remainder next year. As a result of the comprehensive spending review, the Thames Valley force will have another 180 officers. But will we attract new recruits, and will we retain our existing officers? I am afraid that the signs are not good. Steps must be taken, on an urgent basis.
There is a case for a regional cost of living allowance for key public sector workers, or for the taking of specific measures to assist home ownership. I have been lobbying the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Minister for Housing and Planning, and I welcome references in the housing Green Paper to the need to address the issue. Working with Thames Valley police, I have pressed the case for an additional cost of living allowance to mitigate the effect of the implementation of the Sheehy report.
I have been passed a copy of a report that is currently being considered by the police negotiating board. It was submitted jointly by the police authorities of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Thames Valley to the London pay working party. According to the report,The current remuneration arrangements for police officers stem from the Sheehy Inquiry into Police Rewards and Responsibilities which reported in June 1993 …In its formal response to the Sheehy Report, the body representing the police authorities of England and Wales stated that the report "risks long run damage to the service's ability to recruit officers of sufficient quality" and "endanger retention of high quality personnel.The report also warns of the consequences of Sheehy's having created a two-tier police service. It draws attention to the Government's welcome crime-fighting fund, but doubts that, in many police areas, it will attract the necessary recruits.
Ironically, the situation has been made worse by a good decision: the Government's decision to increase the remuneration of members of the Metropolitan police. As a result of the payment of £3,000, a differential of about £2,500 has risen to some £6,000. It is small wonder that so many police officers in my neck of the woods—officers living in Reading or Slough, who can easily commute to London—want to transfer to the Metropolitan police. Some 55 officers want to transfer: that constitutes a record increase. Perhaps most worrying of all is the fact that our objective of attracting more black and Asian officers is being severely undermined by the recruitment problems.
It is time for the Government to grasp the nettle, and to recognise that training a police officer costs about £53,000. We cannot afford that haemorrhage of resources from our local police services. I welcomed the announcement in the comprehensive spending review of the provision of £250 million for the new starter home initiative, which will be fleshed out in the autumn. I hope that the money will be used for interest-free loans, and to address the terrible problem affecting our great public services.
1448 The key divide at the next general election will be the difference between the parties' attitudes to those public services. The Conservative party wants to privatise them; I believe that my party wants to invest in them—with the exception of air traffic control. However, there is another divide: the north-south divide, as it affects our great public services. Unless affordable housing is delivered for police officers, firefighters, nurses, teachers and other local authority workers, that divide will go into reverse, which would have serious consequences for my constituency and those of many other Members in the south of England.
§ Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)
As the last speaker, let me return to the opening of the debate, and add my voice to those of my hon. Friends the Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis). It is 26 years since the invasion and division of the island of Cyprus, and action by both Britain and the international community to reunite it is long overdue.
I want to speak briefly about the problem of abandoned vehicles, and their impact on housing estates. I am sure that that problem is familiar to other hon. Members, especially Labour Members.
By definition, abandoned vehicles are old and exhausted. They pose a hazard to any community in which they are dumped, and they attract vandals. Vandalised vehicles are a potential danger to everyone in the community, and especially to children. After a time, abandoned and vandalised vehicles are often torched, and the burned-out remains contribute to the general sense of decline. The Government are doing a great deal to regenerate estates, but abandoned vehicles give another example of the difficulties that residents face.
The problem is getting worse. Three years ago, scrap metal was worth between £50 and £60 a tonne. Prices have since declined rapidly, and people are lucky if they get £5 or £6 a tonne. The cost of getting rid of the rubber from the tyres of abandoned vehicles is going up, so it is impossible to make money from disposing of vehicles properly. As a result, people are abandoning vehicles increasingly often.
For example, it costs my local authority £26 to tow away a vehicle to the breaker's yard. It is therefore cheaper, easier and more convenient to abandon vehicles than to dispose of them properly. As a result, the number of abandoned vehicles that local authorities have to deal with has undergone a rapid escalation. In my local authority area, 108 vehicles were removed in April 1999. That compares with the 211 removed in March this year—an increase of almost 100 per cent. The numbers are continuing to increase.
Moreover, recent research shows that there is a growing trend for owner-drivers not to register vehicles. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 20 per cent. of drivers in greater London do not register their vehicles, with the result that they do not face any penalty if they abandon them, and need not fear being caught. That is causing considerable difficulties in my constituency.
My local authority is finding it hard to cope with the problem. The longer that it takes to deal with abandoned vehicles, the more likely it is that they will be vandalised and burned out. A serious fire in my constituency was caused in just that way two weeks ago, and we must be mindful of the safety considerations with regard to children.
1449 I have taken the matter up with my local authority, and have asked it to deal with what I consider to be local shortcomings. In its turn, however, the authority has asked me to raise in the House the question of what the Government can do to help councils deal with the problem.
First, local authorities have to write to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea to determine who owns a vehicle. On average, it takes 21 days for them to get an answer, yet the police can make a telephone call and get an answer to the same question on the same day, or the day after. I am told that data protection requirements are the reason for that disparity, but it cannot be impossible to cut the amount of time that local authorities have to wait.
Secondly, a vandalised and burned-out car that still has a registration plate cannot be towed away. That is amazing. The local authority has to leave a notice on such a vehicle stating that it will be towed away in two weeks, even though it could pose a potential danger to the local community. That provision needs to be looked at and amended.
We must also tighten the arrangements for ownership of vehicles, because too many people are getting away with not paying for their vehicles to be towed away. DVLA has introduced notification schemes, but it is still too easy for people to evade their responsibilities by not registering their vehicles and not paying their road tax. The Government must deal with those problem areas.
It takes six weeks before a vehicle can be towed away. The owner must be informed in writing, and that takes several weeks. A notice must be left on the vehicle, and that accounts for a few more weeks. Surely those procedures could be telescoped, so that the vehicles could be taken away sooner. They often sit there for several months before anything is done. We must shorten the administrative procedures. The Government should work with local authorities and the police to address that issue.
Negotiations are taking place at European level on the end of vehicle life directive, but it will be some years before that is implemented. In the meantime, we cannot wait and the Government must take action. They must create a sustainable, economically viable disposal system. That would provide an economic incentive for drivers not to abandon their vehicles, but to take them where they can be dealt with. It would also reduce pollution, protect our environment and help to recycle the components of finished vehicles.
I make a plea to the Minister. We must deal with this serious problem for many inner-city areas. With good will from the Government and improved efficiency from local authorities, we can address this issue.
§ 2.2 pm
§ Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)
It is a pleasure to respond to this varied debate on behalf of the Opposition. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) was kind enough to refer to me in my new role, but I still keep my old role. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who would normally have been at the Dispatch Box and who was inimitable in that role, was thought to be so inimitable 1450 that his role has been carved up between the remaining members of the constitutional affairs team. It is quite likely that the Minister will have to cope with a number of different people appearing at the Dispatch Box in this role to respond for the Opposition. I shall still speak for the Opposition on Scottish matters.
We have had 22 speeches from Back Benchers, which undoubtedly is very good news. It has been fascinating to listen to the debate. I have learned that one never learns so much as when one is prepared to spend five or six hours sitting on the Benches listening to debates. It is no surprise to me that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is such a pleasant and courteous man because he, more than any other member of the Government, has to do precisely that. It is a pleasure to see that he will respond to this debate.
Moving slightly away from those conciliatory comments, I should tell the Minister that one of the pleasures of the debate is that it has given hon. Members the opportunity, not too fettered by time, to develop ideas. That is in sharp contrast with the way in which the rest of this week's business has been conducted. There has been a series of timetable motions and guillotines when there was absolutely no question of the Opposition spinning matters out. That was done solely because the Government wanted to conclude business even though they have grossly overloaded the timetable. The nadir was reached yesterday. It is my understanding that Lords amendments have never previously been guillotined when they have come back for consideration in this place, but that is precisely what happened on the Football (Disorder) Bill. It reflects very badly on the way in which the House conducts its business.
Mindful as I am of Madam Speaker's comments in her valedictory message to the House about how we need to conduct ourselves if we are to make a reasonable impact, I ask the Minister to pass on to his colleagues the message that we need more time for sensible debate. Grateful as I am for the opportunity to have such a debate on a diverse range of issues today, the end of this Session has been a very poor example of how we should conduct our business.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has said, if there were any possibility for the key points that hon. Members make in Adjournment debates to be replied to not only by the Minister but by written replies from the various Departments, it might be an interesting step in ensuring that our speeches had a greater impact. I am conscious of the fact that the Minister, wise as he is, will not necessarily have the answers to all the points raised in this debate.
I shall try to address the issues that have been raised in the debate. I apologise if I touch on some of them only very briefly, but time is very short.
We had several speeches on foreign affairs—by the hon. Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis), and, on Yugoslavia, by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge. The speeches had a common theme: warfare, far from producing conclusive or clear results, has led to constant future tension and problems. We have seen that in Cyprus—a country which I know and love. I spent my honeymoon there, walking around the Akamas peninsula 1451 and swimming in the baths of Aphrodite. It is a divided island with many problems that were never resolved by armed conflict.
Equally, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge was right when he said that Yugoslavia's problems had not been resolved by the NATO intervention. That is not to suggest that the NATO intervention was not justified, necessary and inevitable. However, it is a burden on the Government. I simply say to the Minister that he knows that the Government will enjoy the Opposition's support for all constructive action that they take in dealing with those matters.
A huge number of local issues were raised in the debate. They illustrated clearly that hon. Members have a detailed knowledge of what goes on in their areas and constituencies, and the enormous contribution that they can make. My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) described the problems of a computing company in his constituency. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us on those.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) made some compelling points on leisure facilities in his constituency. I sympathise so much with him on mobile phone masts, which are the bane of my constituency and probably that of almost every other hon. Member. Something must be done about them. Something that started with the very good intention of trying to free up regulation to enable people to have access to cellnet phones and others has gone completely haywire. Something has to be done about it.
I was a little surprised to hear the comments of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), which seemed to be a classic example of a Back Bencher taking an opportunity to have a dig at the Government. Two points emerged from his speech. The first—which he did not make—on pensions was that the truth is that, since the national pension was established in the 1940s, all Governments have been conning pensioners and the electorate. Successive Governments have behaved like Mr. Maxwell: they have raided the pension fund to pay for their current expenditure.
I tell the hon. Member, on a completely non-partisan basis, that that is why the crisis exists. Even the Minister knows that there is very little solution to it. However, I commend to the hon. Gentleman the Conservative party's suggestion that it is time that we got away from gimmick offerings to pensioners. We need to make some progress in ensuring that pensioners have a set pension that is higher than it is now, while getting away from gimmickry costing great sums to administer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) touched on the issue of hospitals in his constituency and the problems caused by the merger of health authorities. We have in the health service an enormous bureaucratic organisation. I sometimes wonder whether we are benefiting people by the constant interference in trying to change, reform and streamline. There was a health service in this country before the NHS existed. It was provided by a range of voluntary institutions, which also took in those who could not afford to pay. There are lessons to be learned from that, even if the national health service has much to commend it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) dealt with many topics that were relevant to his constituency. Again, he showed a complete mastery 1452 of his local problems. I share his views on the disgraceful release today of convicted murderers in Northern Ireland. Some are being released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, but it beggars belief that, having included a minimum period of two years in the agreement, an exemption is made off the cuff, through exercise of the royal prerogative and the royal pardon, to accommodate a vicious killer who has not served that requisite period. We have approached the matter inconsistently.
The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) made important points about wheelchair use. It is not the first time that such a problem has been raised. I have certainly experienced it and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will pass on those comments to his colleagues.
The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) made a speech that was rightly heard in silence. It seems to me, prima facie, that he presented a massive indictment of the operation of professional procedures against doctors. It is impossible to comment further, but I hope that the matter can be examined. Perhaps one of the problems is that the existence of so many doctors means that professional control inside the profession is more difficult to achieve. The question whether people should be suspended during inquiries should be considered. The House should be grateful that the hon. Gentleman has brought it to our attention.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made many points about tourism in his county. I have occasionally taken a bucket and spade to north Cornwall and I hope to do so in future.
The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) displayed complete expertise in his subject. I disagree with him about pensions. He sent a shot across the Government's bows, but he also asked about pensions and the minimum pension guarantee. As I said earlier, we must get away from gimmickry on pensions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold mentioned a strategic road through his constituency. I have driven along the road to which he referred; it is a genuine problem. I hope that the Government will be able to find a way in which to deal with it within the available cost parameters.
The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) was ill received by some hon. Members—for little reason. My hon. Friend is a great expert on agriculture and farming in this country, and the House would be wise to listen to him. His comments on gangers and the way in which the system works reveal a scandal. We live in such a regulated society, and people are therefore more apt to wish to break the regulations.
The hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) did not seem to understand that. He made several points about policing, and I share some of his anxieties, as my constituency also lies in the Thames valley. He mentioned the total resource allocation formula; it has nothing to do with the previous Government. My constituency is suffering because of that formula under this Government. The hon. Member did not make many good points on that.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) made important points about abandoned vehicles. I am sure that his views will be shared by many hon. Members. The increasing number of abandoned vehicles in my constituency is enormous. They are burnt out and they constitute a danger. There must be a simpler way to deal with them when they are on the street.
1453 Let me briefly consider several wider issues. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) considered mental health services. He made an excellent speech, and I share his sentiments. As one of the chairmen of the all-party mental health group, I greatly sympathise with the points that he made. Mental health legislation must be addressed. That is a massive task, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary realises that he will have Conservative Members' support when the Government decide to grasp the nettle. It is not a party political issue; it is a very complex one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) spoke about Harefield hospital—a matter of great concern to my constituents. In my experience, the disruption caused by removing a centre of excellence is often extremely damaging. I hope that the Government will consider that fact as they decide how to resolve the issue.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) spoke about landfill at Denholme. As there is a landfill site at Denham in my constituency, I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman was straying away from his patch. His comments are correct and raised an interesting point. The Government believe in devolution, but the hon. Gentleman came to the House to raise an issue because he realises that, when there is local government mismanagement, the buck stops with him as Member of Parliament. It was a bold step to take. I often reply to my constituents that Parliament has devolved such matters to local authorities to decide—even though I may not agree with that.
The Conservatives propose that there should be a method whereby local communities can appeal against the planning decisions of local authorities. That proposal should commend itself to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will reflect on it and pass it to his colleagues.
I agree with the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) that we work hard in the vacation—it is an important part of our activities. Some of us also work hard with buckets and spades. The path of shining light could be followed by MPs; it is commendable to do some hard labour. I certainly recommend that path to any hon. Members who are able-bodied enough to take it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) dealt with a question relating to the House. We should be able to divert our phone calls, although perhaps not for the reason he gave.
I hope that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) was not valedictory. It was a considerable speech that dealt with some philosophical points of great importance. I cannot do justice to it in the time remaining for my speech, but some of the points that he made reflect directly on the operation of government in this country. The question whether government should be by representative democracy or by focus group is critical.
At present, we suffer from the fact that we have a Government who court popularity; their use of referendums or other devices resembles the Government of Napoleon III. Indeed, the Prime Minister was once heard to say that he wanted to make government in this country less feudal and more napoleonic. I regret that that is exactly what he seems to be achieving—although he may have been thinking of another Napoleon.
1454 The Prime Minister also suffers from the Tinkerbell factor. When the light starts to go out, or something goes wrong, he needs reassurance so that the light can shine again. As he is not receiving that reassurance at present, I think that he needs a long holiday. I am happy to wish him a good holiday. Indeed, I wish every Member of the House a good holiday, especially the Minister, whose comments I look forward to hearing.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)
The debate has been extensive and interesting, with some surprising comments. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) was delighted with a written answer that he had not yet seen—a first for the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) told us that we should listen more attentively to each other—behaviour that we do not often witness in the House. For the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson)—a great lover of his constituency—outer London became rural Middlesex. We all love our own constituency.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) told me that I had been too polite and too helpful in the past. Perhaps I can keep up the good work. I shall continue the tradition of writing to all those hon. Members who I do not mention in my speech. I shall pass messages on to my colleagues and try to secure responses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) started the debate in pole position on Cyprus, as he often does. He was well supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis). We do need to make progress. The Government are committed, as guarantor, to a settlement in Cyprus. We fully back the efforts of the United Nations. We take every opportunity to press human rights issues with the Turkish Government. Our view on the Ilisu dam has not changed since the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on 21 December. Objective criteria have to be met and environmental concerns will be taken into account.
One of the major themes of the debate has been new technology. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) said that the House could improve its telephone system. I think that he is right, and I shall pass on his suggestions. Change takes place so quickly that improvement will become inevitable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) made an important point about the possible problem of poverty of access to internet and e-mail systems. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes that issue very seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and the hon. Member for Southend, West talked about mobile phone masts and the Stewart report. Let me make it clear that the Government are committed to responding to the report and are consulting on new planning powers for local authorities. It is an important issue on which we want to make progress quickly.
The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) spoke about a problem with a computer firm, AllVoice, in his constituency. He had a reply from a Minister today. Using 1455 new technology, we have faxed the answer to the hon. Gentleman, so that he knows that the matter is in hand. I will not comment on the specific case, but there is the wider issue of the knowledge network and keeping intellectual and professional rights. He asked me specifically whether I would write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the issue. I give him the undertaking that I will.
An announcement of major investment in the national health service was made yesterday. Real-terms spending will increase by 6 per cent. for the next six years—a growth over that time of a third in the money that will be spent. There will be major changes in practice and the need to modernise was expressed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the NHS has dominated our debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster spoke about the important need to bring social services and health together and to pool budgets and good practice. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) spoke extremely eloquently about the problems in Bromley and Bexley and about the consultation programme on amalgamation. I will, of course, pass on his comments; that is what they were designed for. I assure him that, given the scale of spending, all local authorities—whether they are above or below the index—will receive increased spending. Many of us challenge the index, so I can also say that it, too, is under review.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood made an important speech about an extremely valuable institution—the Harefield hospital. It is internationally renowned and has an international team of medical consultants. Ministers are talking to the staff team there, because it is important that it is kept together—that is where the knowledge is. The hon. Gentleman made his case powerfully and I shall ensure that his views are passed on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) spoke eloquently about the specific case of Wassan Khatib. I do not want to comment on that case or on the case of Alex Eady that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West. However, we can learn much from considering complaints and taking them seriously. I fear that, in the NHS and elsewhere, we do not learn from our mistakes or examine them properly or confidently enough, and that we are afraid of apologising when things go wrong. Several Members have said that the complaints system against medical practitioners is not adequate and does not have patients' confidence. I agree with them, and that is why the Government are talking to the profession about a better way forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West also referred to the provision of wheelchairs, which has been a Cinderella service. There has been a damning Audit Commission report and, given the level of investment in the NHS, we should be able to make progress.
In an authoritative and knowledgeable speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) spoke about mental illness services. Those, too, have been a Cinderella service. A Green Paper has been published, and consultation is taking place. I want to pick up on two points that he made. First, we need to strengthen community-based mental health services and intervene at an early date, and secondly, new drugs and treatment are making mental health issues and problems far more manageable in the community.
1456 I agree with the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) that there ought to be more women general practitioners. They bring sensitivity to the health service. Another form of sensitivity would be to allow alternative medicines and treatments to be available. Some health authorities do that better than others.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) spoke about the plight of pensioners. A lot has been achieved, but there is much more to be done. Pensioner groups in King's Lynn and elsewhere in north-west Norfolk, including Mr. Worth and Mr. and Mrs. Martin, will continue their campaign. I make my hon. Friend a promise: we will do more; a lot more needs to be done. Only yesterday, we made a major announcement about the provision of services and finance for residential and nursing care. In the autumn, as he knows, we will make a significant and important announcement on the pensioners tax credit. I suspect that when the next pensions increase is agreed and announced, it will be far in excess of the current year's agreement.
Another major theme of the debate was the environment. I know the site and area to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) referred. I will not comment on the specific case, but I stress the need to move away from landfill and to do more on recycling. If the Environment Agency has not been consulted on the specific planning application to which my hon. Friend referred, there are real grounds for concern.
On another transport and environment issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster spoke about the need for proper access for people with a disability to the railways. As he said, we need to get people off the roads and on to high quality public transport. Both he and the Government support such a policy; it is important to do so sensibly.
The hon. Member for Cotswold spoke wisely about the A419 and the A417. Yes, there is a problem. There is a solution, but it is difficult to balance the needs of traffic and transport with the wider needs of the environment. That is, of course, also the case in Southend, West, where a bypass is desperately needed. Money has been made available for new bypasses just this week, but we have yet to resolve which schemes will go ahead. None the less, the hon. Member for Southend, West made his point extremely well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) spoke with great knowledge about the problem of abandoned cars. Some local authorities are at the forefront of good practice on the matter. We need to consider that and to use best practice, although, as he clearly recognises, we must move in the longer term towards manufacturers having ultimate responsibility for recycling.
I hope that the speech of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) was not his last. He made important and significant points. I know of his commitment over many years to working with young people, giving them citizenship and education and developing and adding value to them. If we can achieve that, some of the problems with yobbish behaviour in our schools will die away. We must praise and support teachers and social workers, as the hon. Gentleman said. It is far too easy to be critical of people and not to strengthen them. That support and praise can go wider. 1457 As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) said, it is important that we offer housing assistance to public employees.
We have talked about tourism and holidays. On my ministerial duties, I shall be going to Cornwall, Skegness, Boston, north-west Norfolk and the Balkans during my alleged holiday. I will enjoy working hard, I will enjoy working hard in my constituency and I will enjoy a bit of a holiday. I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all your staff enjoy your well deserved holiday.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I reciprocate those good wishes, as I did approximately 12 months ago. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.