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House of Commons

Wednesday 17 April 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Killingholme Generating Stations (Ancillary Powers) Bill

[ Lords ]

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time tomorrow.

London Underground (Safety Measures) Bill

[ Lords ] Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time tomorrow.

London Underground Bills


That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the London Underground Bill and the London Underground (No. 2) Bill, that they have the power, if they think fit, to consolidate the said Bills or any part or parts thereof into one Bill.-- [Mr. Neubert.]

Oral Answers to Questions


Local Government Finance

1. Sir Russell Johnston : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a further statement on the reform of local government finance.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang) : I announced our outline proposals on the reform of local government finance to the House on 21 March. We shall be issuing a consultation paper shortly.

Sir Russell Johnston : Will the Secretary of State tell us his thoughts on who is to meet the cost of care in the community? That is something that the Secretary of State for the Environment did not mention in his statement on 21 March. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a good deal of concern among local authorities about how the mentally handicapped and mentally ill patients coming out of institutions are to be cared for and paid for? I should like to know the position.

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman has identified a subject of great importance, to which the Government have given a great deal of attention. He will be aware of our developing plans in that area. The consultation paper that is to be published and the statement that has been made are primarily concerned with the way in which local government finance is collected and the contributions made to it by local residents.

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Mr. Tom Clarke : Will the Secretary of State deal with the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston)? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the matter is of supreme importance, especially to regional and island authorities that have to deal with the problems of mentally ill and mentally handicapped people and their carers? Those authorities' budgets are being cut and they want to hear more from the Secretary of State today than they have heard to date.

Mr. Lang : I urge the hon. Gentleman to table a question on that subject. The question that I am answering is about the Government's consultation paper and the statement on the reform of local government finance. Our record on the funding of community care is second to none and substantial improvements in the handling of that matter are under way.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my right hon. Friend agree that finance and the structure of local government must go hand in hand? Does he accept that in the review of the structure of local government, the issues relevant to Strathclyde will be very different from those relevant to Dumfries and Galloway? I hope that he will be flexible in his arrangements so that we can find the best method for each region in Scotland.

Mr. Lang : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, with whom I agree that the funding and the structure of local government should be considered together. The Government propose to consult widely on possible developments for the structure of local government. When we bring forward proposals in due course, we shall take careful account of the varied and diverse nature of Scotland, and that will be reflected in the structure on which we decide.

Mr. Dewar : On the specific subject of local government finance, will the Secretary of State confirm that he now believes that a local government tax, essentially based on property and the rate poundage and paid by householders, is preferable to the poll tax? Can he explain why he greeted that very same proposal, when it was made by the Labour party, with scorn and contempt? He now appears to be prepared to endorse it.

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman is asking me to anticipate the publication of our consultation paper. He is not going to draw me on that, other than for me to repeat that in our statement we made it clear that we are proposing a new local tax. It will be a single tax with a property and personal element. I think that he will find that it is rather different from the Labour party's proposals. At the next election, the electorate will have a choice--our new, fair, local tax or a return to rates under Labour.

Health Boards

2. Mrs. Irene Adams : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the criteria used for the appointment of non- executive members of Scottish health boards.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : The criteria for the appointment of non-executive members of Scottish health boards were that

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they should have the qualities and abilities necessary to make an effective contribution, individually and collectively, to the boards' new role.

Mrs. Adams : Will the Minister admit that there is only one criterion for selection to health boards in Scotland : membership of or affiliation to the Conservative party? Does he realise that Renfrew district, the biggest centre of population in the Argyll and Clyde area, does not have a single representative on that area's health board? Is he telling us that there are no able Conservatives in that area? If so, I agree with him.

Mr. Forsyth : I suggest that the hon. Lady has a word with her hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Lambie), who suggested two members of health boards who were appointed by my right hon. Friend. I do not think that the criterion applied in their case was the one that the hon. Lady has in mind.

The hon. Lady is wrong to say that no one from Paisley is on the health board that covers her constituency. If she does her homework she will find that Mr. Bremner comes from Paisley.

Mr. Eadie : Does not the Minister realise that that answer is most unsatisfactory and does not fit the facts? The criteria for appointment of members to health boards are that people should be supporters of the Conservative party or card-carrying members of it. Does he not realise that his reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams) was disgraceful?

Mr. Forsyth : No, I do not. The hon. Gentleman did not listen to my answer ; I refer him, too, to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South. The criteria that have been applied are to establish whether people have the necessary qualities. Many members of health boards who are not members of the Conservative party and who work hard on behalf of the health service will take considerable offence at questions of the kind asked by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Galbraith : Why is it, then, that of the 15 chairmen of health boards, 11 represent either Conservative or business interests, two are from the National Farmers Union and only two do not fall into either category ? Are not my hon. Friends correct to say that the only criterion for becoming a chairman of a health board or a non-executive member is to be a member of the Conservative party or a supporter of it ?

Mr. Forsyth : I dare say that the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) will be astonished to hear the hon. Gentleman assuming that everyone with a business background is a supporter of the Conservative party--although to judge from what the Labour party produced yesterday I am sure that that will shortly be the case.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. As the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Lambie) has been mentioned, I call him.

Mr. Lambie : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on accepting the two nominations that I put forward on behalf of the Labour party and the trade union movement in Ayrshire. Those two representatives, Angela Dunbar

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and Joe Cahill, have served the Ayrshire and Arran health board well in the past and I am grateful that they have been re-elected.

Mr. Forsyth : I wish to make it absolutely clear that the reason why those two people were appointed had nothing to do with their support for or membership of the Labour party ; it was simply because of their record of service on the board and the contribution that they can make to it.

Scottish Parliament

3. Mr. Canavan : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will arrange to meet representatives of the Scottish Constitutional Convention to discuss their proposals for a Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Lang : A meeting with the Scottish Constitutional Convention would serve no useful purpose since its proposals, which I have considered carefully, are irrelevant to the basic concerns of the Scottish people and unlikely to be of benefit to Scotland.

Mr. Canavan : Why is it that the Secretary of State for Wales is prepared to discuss the possibility of a Welsh Assembly and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is prepared to discuss the possibility of a Northern Ireland Parliament, yet the Secretary of State for Scotland refuses even to discuss with the convention its proposals for a Scottish Parliament ? Does he not realise that unless he responds positively to the overwhelming wishes of the people of Scotland before the next general election, he may, after that election, join the likes of Mr. Graeme Souness looking for another job in England ?

Mr. Lang : I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales would not contemplate a tax-raising Welsh assembly any more than I would contemplate a tax-raising Scottish assembly. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the Scottish division of the Institute of Directors whose views have been characterised as : "If such an assembly were set up with these powers, we would move company headquarters out of Scotland."

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having nothing to do with the Scottish Constitutional Convention? It is organised by church men and freaks who, if they had paid some attention to their calling, might not have empty churches. If Scotland were treated to the sort of things that they want, they would empty our nation of its people as they have emptied their churches of congregations.

Mr. Lang : My hon. and learned Friend makes his point in his inimitable way. The Scottish Constitutional Convention is certainly a self- appointed and self-designated body and has been described as the Labour party at prayer. Certainly, the Liberal party went along for the ride and ended up being taken for a ride. The Scottish Constitutional Convention does not speak for Scotland and has produced nothing of any relevance to Scotland's future.

Mr. Salmond : If the constitutional convention were prepared to return to its founding document, "A claim of right" and put the matter of constitutional change directly to the Scottish people in a referendum, would the Secretary of State have the guts to put his proposals to the

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people in the referendum? What is the argument against having a referendum putting the choice of independence, devolution and the status quo, and letting the Scottish people decide?

Mr. Lang : At least I have in common with the hon. Gentleman that neither he nor I have been interested in taking part in the Scottish Constitutional Convention--I, because I believe that it goes too far in nationalism, and he, presumably, because he believes that it does not go far enough. It is not a representative body, it has produced no realistic proposals and it has addressed none of the fundamental issues affecting the constitutional future of Scotland.

Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Scottish Constitutional Convention spent months talking, yet failed to address the Goschen Barnett formula, the West Lothian question and the number of Scottish Members of this Parliament? Because of that, any proposals from that source would have no hope whatever of getting through Parliament to be implemented and, therefore, they are fraudulent and flawed.

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All the proposals emerging from the Opposition for tax-raising Scottish assemblies would be immensely damaging to the future of Scotland. They would drive away inward investment, destroy investment at home, damage the future prospects of economic growth and destroy jobs.

Local Government Finance

4. Mr. Ingram : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met COSLA to discuss the future of local government finance in Scotland ; and if he will make a statement.

15. Mr. Norman Hogg : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next expects to meet the Convention of Scotland Local Authorities to discuss the poll tax.

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Local Government and I met the convention on 8 April to discuss a number of local government finance issues, including the community charge. I hope to meet the convention again once it is in a position to respond to our consultation paper on the proposed new local taxation system.

Mr. Ingram : Will the Secretary of State tell the House when he changed his mind, and what or who made him change his mind about the poll tax?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the Government have been considering the funding of local government finance for a long time. We have recognised that the community charge is not operating effectively and has not gained general acceptance in Scotland. Therefore, after a relatively short period of time and after very thorough and careful scrutiny of the options, we have decided on a new local tax which has been announced to the House as to its fundamentals and on which a consultation paper will appear shortly.

Mr. Norman Hogg : Given that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents, can we now expect the

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Secretary of State for Scotland to evangelise Scotland for a property tax, and will he bring missionary zeal to that work?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman must wait and see what our new tax is all about. The Opposition are worried not that our new proposals will not work but that they will work.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith : While I believe that it would be quite wrong for the Secretary of State to speculate in any way on what announcements may be made in the next week or so, does he accept that if we return to a form of property taxation, it is very important that the basis of valuation and revaluation of property is the same north and south of the border?

Mr. Lang : My right hon. Friend makes an important point about valuation and revaluation. It is an issue which we have considered with great care and I hope that he will not be disappointed when the consultation paper is published.

Mr. Maxton : In view of the commitment to the poll tax shown by the hon. Members for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) and for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) and of their long-standing opposition to any form of property tax, can the Secretary of State tell us whether the two of them will still be Ministers following the announcement next week? Can the Secretary of State guarantee that when he publishes the consultative document next week it will contain figures that I can take to my constituents to tell them exactly how much they will pay under the new tax? Or shall we have to print posters next week to put up around Scotland saying, "Ian, where's your figures?"

Mr. Lang : I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) and for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) will be in the Government, not only next week but next year and the year after and the year after that. [Interruption.] And my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton).

The hon. Gentleman asked about figures, but he should consider those relating to the number of different varieties of policies suggested by the Opposition. At the last count there were 67--that makes H. J. Heinz look like a one-product company.

Higher Education

5. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement about the number of students in higher education in Scotland.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : The numbers of students in full-time higher education have increased by about one third to 90,000 since the Government took office. Part-time students have also increased by about one fifth.

Mr. Marshall : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which is good news for the people of Scotland and especially for the individuals involved. Does he agree that it demonstrates the Government's commitment to the cause of higher education and to the creation of an opportunity society?

Mr. Forsyth : Yes, indeed. When the Government took office, about one in six school leavers went on to higher

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education. Today the figure is about one in four and by the end of our next decade in office, the figure will be one in three.

Mr. Ron Brown : I am sure that the Minister knows, but is forgetting, that many rejects from the public school system in England are given certain rights to come to Scotland--and especially to Edinburgh university--at the expense of ordinary, working-class individuals. That was exposed recently. What is he doing to ensure that there is equality of opportunity in Scotland for both English and Scottish working-class individuals and for youngsters who have every right to higher education? The Minister must know about that problem because it was highlighted in The Scotsman some months ago and he clearly reads that newspaper.

Mr. Forsyth : If the hon. Gentleman says that it appeared in The Scotsman, I suppose that it must be so. However, if he considers our record he will find that participation in higher education in Scotland has already gone beyond the target set for England by the end of the century. We have a participation rate of about 25 per cent. That is an excellent record, but we are not complacent about it. As I said, we have set ourselves high targets and the decisions taken on higher and further education will enable us to achieve our objectives.

Primary Schools

6. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how much was spent per pupil in primary schools in Scotland in the most recent year for which figures are available ; and what was the comparable figure in 1978-79, at constant prices.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : Current expenditure per pupil in 1989-90 has increased by 50 per cent. over and above the rate of inflation since 1979 in primary schools. The latest figure is £1,385 before taking account of the costs of local authority administration, school meals and transport, which are substantial.

Mr. Knox : Can my hon. Friend say how those figures square with claims that there have been cuts in primary education in Scotland during the past 12 years or even claims that there has been underfunding of primary school education?

Mr. Forsyth : The Opposition make those claims from time to time. The figures show that expenditure per pupil has increased by one half over and above price rises. Any talk of cuts is simply nonsense. The effects of that expenditure can be seen in the improved performance in our schools.

Dr. Reid : Will the Minister make similar comparisons of the expenditure per pupil in primary schools in 1978-79 and now on party political propaganda, such as that used to support the school boards and now to promote national testing? Nothing was squandered from the education budget on such propaganda 10 or 11 years ago, but now hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent ramming down the throats of pupils and parents in Scotland propaganda to support a system for which they have no sympathy-- national testing. Would not it better to spend that money on much-needed learning support so that pupils benefit, rather than the Conservative party?

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Mr. Forsyth : We have already made a commitment to find a way of channelling further resources into learning support. The hon. Gentleman mentioned school boards and party political propaganda. Strathclyde region spent more to promote school boards than the Government campaign overall. This aspect ceased to be a matter of difference between the parties only when the Labour party changed its position on school boards.

The Opposition should get their act together. Only a few months ago they criticised the Government for not having provided enough information to parents about national testing. We did not embark on our programme of leaflets and advertising until we had been requested by parents, organisations and the Opposition to do so.

Volunteer Fire Brigades

7. Mr. Beith : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many volunteer fire brigades are operated by local authorities in Scotland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : There are 140 volunteer fire units in Scotland, mostly in highland and islands areas.

Mr. Beith : Does the Minister agree that volunteer fire units provide a vital service to island communities and remote areas? Is there any danger that substantial numbers of those units will be disbanded because of difficulties in applying the health and safety regulations in full? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that was the reason given by Labour- controlled Northumberland county council for disbanding the Holy Island fire brigade, one of the few in England? Will that problem arise in Scotland or will the hon. Gentleman find a solution to it?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I agree that volunteer fire brigades have performed an extremely valuable role in Scotland. Volunteer units can render initial cover in advance of the arrival of full-time or retained fire-fighting crews. I envisage volunteer units in Scotland remaining an important part of the Scottish fire service, because volunteer units give confidence to people in remote areas and the islands in a way that is effective and provides value for money. It is for each fire authority to consider what needs to be done within its area according to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman follows up this matter with the responsible home affairs Minister. I understand that the hon. Gentleman will have a meeting with him shortly.


8. Mr. Nigel Griffiths : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will take steps to reduce delays in bringing prosecutions against people charged with offences.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate sets targets for the average time that should elapse between receipt of a police report by a procurator fiscal and the service of a complaint on an accused. Latest figures indicate that the overwhelming majority of procurator fiscal offices meet these targets.

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Mr. Griffiths : Are not the targets woefully inadequate? Over the past year, people pleading and going to trial faced delays of up to 26 weeks in Scotland. That does nothing to help the morale of the police force, trading standards officers and others who enforce the law. Are not the Government's inaction and the lack of will to tackle these serious delays the reasons why we have a crime wave?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Steps have been and are being taken to speed up cases coming to court. A standard style of police report has been introduced which should reduce delays. A joint working group comprising the Crown Office and chief constables recommended that the fiscal should have a report within, at the latest, 28 days of the accused being cautioned and charged by the police. It is important that, both in sheriff and district courts, the target in non-custody cases between pleading and trial is 10 to 14 weeks. The number of permanent and temporary sheriffs in Scotland has been increased by 70 since 1983 and that, too, is important. We are also introducing more and more computer technology into the courts.

Mr. Michael J. Martin : God help us!

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : God help the criminals, because we shall have a more efficient system to deal with them. The fingerprint technology will bring many more of them to trial. A number of reviews are taking place and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall follow them through with vigour.

Dr. Godman : May I remind the Minister that delays in bringing prosecutions in cases involving allegations of child abuse or sexual abuse can be extremely distressing, affecting not only those charged with such offences but, more importantly, the victims of such crimes? Surely the utmost speed must be impressed upon those with authority in relation to such dreadful cases. The children involved must be treated humanely and compassionately and not subjected to unnecessary delays.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My hon. Friend the Minister of State will be speaking to social workers on that subject on Friday. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Lord Advocate, as I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern on this matter.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : May I remind Opposition Members that Scotland is unique in the world--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman should seek to remind the Minister or, better still ask a question.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : I remind the Minister that Scotland is unique in the European Community because we have a system of justice that requires prosecution within statutory times and we achieve those statutory times with regularity and excellence. When I was a Law Officer, at a meeting of Ministers in Switzerland, the Ministers, most of whom were socialists, were happy to take the view that four years was quite a generous time for a prosecution and the mildest time to occur in any European state, so let us blow the trumpet on Scottish justice instead of blasting it.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My hon. and learned Friend was a prominent and distinguished Law Officer and I congratulate him on getting the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Bill through its Committee stage this morning.

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He has retained his interest and is absolutely right to praise the Scottish legal system. We have reason to be proud of the 110-day trial system, which is envied by many other countries. Trials must start within 12 months of an accused first appearing on petition in serious cases. We can be justifiably proud of Scotland's criminal justice system--it is the best in the world.

Grampian Health Board

9. Mrs. Margaret Ewing : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met representatives of Grampian health board to discuss reorganisation of the health service.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : I hold regular meetings with health board representatives to discuss issues affecting the NHS in Scotland.

Mrs. Ewing : Is the Minister aware of the grave disquiet throughout the Grampian health board area about the handling of the Foresterhill opt- out, whereby overwhelming medical and public opinion was overruled by what appeared to be Stalinist tactics at St. Andrew's house? Can the Minister define for the House the importance that he attaches to democratic expression of opinion? This matter greatly concerns my constituents because West Grampian unit is also currently undergoing a consultation process and it seems clear from the Minister's previous actions that consultation is meaningless and that his own views count more than anyone else's.

Mr. Forsyth : I am sorry that the hon. Lady should seek to politicise the matter. The initiative to look at national health service trust status for Foresterhill has come from management and medical people who believe that there will be an opportunity to improve patient care. I understand that consideration is also being given to the possibility of trust status in the West Grampian district, although I have no detailed knowledge of that as the initiative comes from the local districts. Should an application come to my right hon. Friend, as I understand that we expect it will, a three-month period of consultation will be required. I hope that the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and others will apply only one criterion in assessing the application--whether patient care will benefit-- and that party politics will be set aside.

Mr. Robert Hughes : Does the Minister not realise that the decision by the Grampian health board on 7 February to recommend that an opt-out application be made seriously prejudices the board's capacity to conduct the consultation period in an objective manner? If an application is submitted, how can the Minister ensure that the consultation period will be undertaken with the public confident that it will be neutral and that the facts will be properly and straightforwardly reported to the Minister so that he can follow his own criterion and apply a non-political judgment?

Mr. Forsyth : The decision will be taken not by Grampian health board, but by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who will do so after a period of consultation. I understand that the Labour party has plans to use the common good fund in Aberdeen to campaign against national health service trust status. It would seem that the common good of Aberdeen would best be met by people looking at proposals that have come from those

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involved at the sharp end of health care provision with a view to considering them in the light of whether they satisfy patient care. Foresterhill started out as a hospital run by a board of management in the NHS. It has served Aberdeen extremely well, and those who argue for local community organisation and running do so because they believe that it is in the interests of Aberdeen and the constituents of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes).

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : Will the Minister answer two simple questions? Many people in Grampian are asking why the status quo was not an option with regard to Foresterhill. How can the people of Grampian have confidence in a health board which initially said that it had no locus in determining the result, was neutral and relied on a proposal from the hospital, but, when that proposal was not forthcoming, stated that it would have welcomed it? It now says that it will objectively consult the people of Grampian. How can the people of Grampian have confidence that the health board will take account of their welfare?

Mr. Forsyth : I should have thought that if the hon. Gentleman were interested in obtaining a genuine consultation period he would realise that the sort of remarks that he has made would not be helpful towards achieving that. The board's responsibility is to look at the requirements for health care in Grampian and, to the best of its ability and within the resources available, to provide for that. If the board believes that the initiative from doctors and management for NHS trust status is in the interests of patient care, I should have thought that, as a Member of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman would give careful consideration to the arguments put forward by the board and do his best to ensure that the consultation process is not turned into a political farce.

Mr. Andy Stewart : Does my hon. Friend agree that the criterion used to judge the success of the national health service is not the number of beds but the number of patients treated?

Mr. Forsyth : Indeed, I do. Some 900,000 extra patients are treated each year, compared with the number treated when the Government took power. Were NHS trust status--which is attracting interest in Grampian--to be forthcoming, it would mean that the hospital at Foresterhill would be able to take decisions at hospital level and those directly involved in the provision of care would have far more say in the decision-making process. It is ironic that those who argue for devolution on a political basis seem to be against it in the health service.

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