Previous Section Home Page

Column 103

Law Commission report No. 135 on children and divorce in Scotland was published two years ago last March. I took a large birthday cake to the Scottish Office last March to remind the appropriate Minister that two years ago he published a report saying that we needed to upgrade and modernise Scottish divorce laws. In Scotland, "custody" means possession of the child, and a person who loses custody loses possession of the child. It does not mean that the child has any rights.

Another promise was that it might be appropriate to take that measure to the Scottish Grand Committee. The measure would not be controversial in the sense that it might radicalise the position in Scotland. Indeed, there would be unity across the parties for it. I am now told that the Secretary of State is dragging his heels and we cannot get a commitment that he will take the matter to the Scottish Grand Committee. Is he the Secretary of State for Scotland or the Secretary of State in Scotland? We are hearing that question from people who want that legislation brought forward. It is time for the Government to look seriously at using the Scottish Grand Committee. They should take their courage in both hands and let the people elected for Scotland, the majority of whom are not Conservative Members, sculpt that legislation for Scotland's needs.

The Gracious Speech delayed rather than consolidated. It is a sign of democracy in decay rather than as it was envisaged when we set up the parliamentary system. The Government are in the doldrums and I have a suggestion for a little pep-up: let us have a general election so that the people can choose another Government.

9.21 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North): First, may I pay tribute to a young man called Nigel Hunter? Nigel is a member of my team who has suffered from muscular dystrophy since birth. He has been my mentor in all matters relating to the House and the disabled. He and thousands of people like him who have been looking not for politically correct fairy tales but for practical and affordable assistance to enable them to live richer and fuller lives will welcome the part of the Gracious Speech that refers specifically to their needs. I hope and believe that, when we come to the legislation, they will welcome it as much.

I entirely support the measures connected with the European budget because we made a commitment which we must honour. The House endorsed by an overwhelming majority the agreement reached by the Prime Minister and if the Opposition choose to oppose that in any form, it will simply be regarded, not only by my hon. Friends but by millions of people outside this House, as an act of crass political cynicism. As a Kent Member, I would be expected to welcome the legislation that will lead to the building of a rail link. My constituents in Thanet look forward to the day when our local line will be linked to the fast line from Ashford to London and we can enjoy the benefits of a faster and better service. As I represent an agricultural constituency, hon. Members would also expect me to welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech relating to agricultural tenancy laws, and I do.

Column 104

Finally, in relation to the printed part of the Gracious Speech, I endorse all the comments that have been made from both sides of the House in support of the determined and courageous efforts of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. I am sure that we all wish him well.

That brings me to the section of the Gracious Speech that says: "Other measures will be laid before you."

I should like to spend a few moments that are left at the end of several rather long speeches, in commenting on some of the measures that I believe should be laid before us.

I join many hon. Friends and Opposition Members in saying that there must be changes to the legislation relating to the Child Support Agency. It is easy to be a politician on either side of this, or indeed any, legislative forum and have 20:20 hindsight. It behoves us all to consider legislation and find out how it works, and then, without shame to say, if it needs fine tuning, that we must change it. That is certainly so.

I support entirely the fundamental principle behind the Child Support Agency--the concept that people with children should pay for those children. However, reading the representations that have been made to me by my constituents who have been affected, I realise that we have committed a cardinal legislative sin in introducing what effectively has been retrospective legislation--and that is almost always bad news.

It seems to me that all previously and reasonably entered-into agreements-- commitments not only in terms of what have been known as clean-break settlements, but, for example, hire purchase arrangements, for the purchase of a car which are legally binding on the people concerned--must be taken into account in any formula.

It is not surprising that the agency is in danger of becoming totally discredited, not as the Child Support Agency, but as the ex-spouse support agency. How much of that money goes to the children who are supposed to be supported?

Payments should be needs-related, not means-related. If they are going to be in any way means-related, if the child is supposed to benefit from the enhanced prospects of an absent parent, surely that money should be placed in trust for the child, not simply become part of a family budget to pay for beer and skittles for an ex-partner. There must be a right of appeal against the assessments, and the assessment of income must include such essential ingredients as the costs of travel to work, which, from my constituency to London, can be £1,500 to £2,000 a year of unavoidable costs. If the people on whom we are placing the burden of support are to be able to work to pay that money, surely those costs must be included in the assessment; and so must the costs of a second family. It is no good saying that we have moved from one family to another partner who has children. Members on both sides of the House know of cases where the absent parent finds himself--or, in one or two cases,

herself--confronted with a demand for dramatically increased payments, while receiving nothing in support for someone else's children that they have taken on board. That problem must be tackled; and so must the burden of lump sum payments.

It is pointless telling people with no money in the bank, "By the way, you owe us £1,500 in arrears." I accept the hazards, but we must consider a position in which no

Column 105

payment is due until the appeal has been heard and the proper amount has been determined. Some people argue that, in those circumstances, some people will try to play the system and appeal repeatedly with a view to putting off the evil day before they pay anything --and that is true. I cannot deny it. However, even that is preferable to placing an intolerable burden on people who do not have the money to pay, and who, therefore, are driven to distraction by the new burden that is placed on them at a time when, in most cases, as most of us know--and some of us have suffered broken marriages--one suffers enough stress and trauma with the break-up of a relationship.

There are few relationships whose break-up is solely the result of the behaviour of one partner. It takes two to make a marriage, and most often it takes two to make a break-up. At the moment, when people are suffering those traumas, we are adding, and have added, to those problems. I hope that that will be tackled.

Also on the subject of other measures that may be laid before us, it will not surprise you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to know that I want changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. You would expect me to say that, given that I chair the all-party animal welfare group. We legislated in haste and have repented at leisure. The Act was introduced for the right reasons: we had a problem, and we sought to solve it. It had all-party support and the backing of the RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association and many other eminent bodies. In practice, however, it has not worked as we intended it to, and the time has come to change it.

The Act has been misused by the authorities--by the police, and particularly by the Crown Prosecution Service; cases have been brought under that Act when they should have been brought under the Dogs Acts. Convictions under the Dangerous Dogs Act can lead to only one sentence--the death of the dog concerned. We therefore see cases like that of Otis, a not -pit bull terrier who will end his days--I believe that he is now 11 years old--in kennels and in distress, because the case will go to the European Court of Human Rights and the dog will be dead before the case is heard.

Then there is Saaba, whose case is subject to an appeal on a legal technicality. Saaba is a German shepherd which escaped from its home. The police did not want the dog to be destroyed; they were horrified, having advised its owner to plead guilty--which the owner did--and asked for costs and a caution against the owner, when the magistrate's clerk was forced to say, "I am sorry, but we cannot do that; the charge was brought under the wrong Act and the dog must be destroyed."

As I have said, in too many cases the Act is not working as it was intended to do. Today, in another place, Lord Houghton tabled a Bill seeking to amend the Act and to give the magistrates court the power of discretion. That is the simplest, easiest amendment that we can make. I know that the Bill will be given a fair wind in another place, and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will give it a fair wind here.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary recently mentioned identity cards. He concluded that further consultation was necessary, and seems minded to introduce, initially, a voluntary identity card scheme. I must tell him that I expect such a scheme to be not worse than useless, but largely ineffective. I am certain from conversations that I have had with police officers of every rank that within the police force--in the Association of

Column 106

Chief Police Officers, the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation--that there is now overwhelming support for the introduction of a "must produce" card: not a card that must be carried, but a card that must be produced in the same way as a driving licence.

I also believe that there is strong support for such a card throughout the Community. It will not be simply an identity card; it can and should be, in my view, a European Union travel document, a document that carries medical records, or, if the carrier wishes, a driving licence and a social security passport. It should even be able to carry banking information. Discussion about the future of the identity card has gone on for too long. I believe that it is another of the "other measures" that the Home Secretary--in this case--should lay before us this year.

The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, when we passed it, was going to be reviewed within six months. I believe that that review is now overdue. I have spoken to the Home Office Minister responsible--my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department--and I understand that the review is about to take place. In Kent, which has channel ports, we see the effect of third-country entrance. Inevitably, because of the routes that they have taken to the United Kingdom, people have had to come from third and, in some cases, fourth and fifth countries. They are not genuine asylum seekers. We used to return them immediately to the third country from which they came, and I feel that we have made a mistake in allowing a right of appeal in all cases. We should revert to the previous practice. I am concerned at the concession that we have afforded to the channel tunnel operators. Unlike ferry and airline operators they have no carrier liability. The ferry operators and the airlines have to take responsibility for those coming into this country without the current documentation. It will be possible for an illegal entrant into the European Union, arriving perhaps in northern Italy through Genoa, travelling across Italy and through France, to buy a ticket from Paris on the channel tunnel for £200--that will be better than paying £2,000 to travel in acute discomfort in the back of a container lorry--and to arrive in the United Kingdom unchecked. I do not know why we have given that concession to the tunnel operators. It is a mistake and it should be changed.

I should like to see the appeals process speeded up so that those who warrant genuine political asylum should be granted it humanely and swiftly and those who are not asylum seekers, but economic migrants, should be returned to their country of origin as swiftly as possible.

I would like to think that under "Other measures" the Department of National Heritage may find time to address cross-media ownership. Earlier in the debate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott)--I am sorry that he had to leave--expressed concern about relaxation of the takeover rules. I believe that he was referring to the commercial terrestrial television channels. Having afforded to Mr. Murdoch the opportunity to own a satellite channel and a plethora of newspaper titles, we have created one organisation with distinct advantages over all others. Mr. Murdoch's henchmen will say that if the other organisations wanted to buy satellites, they could do so. That is not entirely realistic.

I should like to think that far from tightening the regulations, the Government will free up the takeover rules for cross-media ownership to allow television

Column 107

stations to take over each other, to allow newspapers to take over television stations or television stations to take over newspapers, and to allow telecommunications organisations such as British Telecom or Mercury to take over both. Unless and until we create the economies of scale in this country that are needed for a modern communications industry, I believe that Europe will miss out. If we are to have a European communications industry to meet the needs of the 21st century, it will be United Kingdom led because we are the leaders in this field.

If we do not relax the rules, the Americans and the Japanese will become the major players and once again we will be left to pick up the dog ends after the international companies have taken the lion's share of the business.

It is vital that we address immediately--that means this year--the matter of conditional access or encryption. At the moment there is what we are not allowed to call a cartel, so let us call it a complex monopoly, within the European Union. Mr. Murdoch, Bertelsman and Canal Plus effectively control the gateways to encrypted satellite for analogue systems. That is a horse that we cannot put back in the stable and we should not try to do so. Within a short time the technology will move to fully digital transmission. That is the moment when we, together with our European partners, can and should introduce an open access single standard so that all players--all broadcasters and cable operators--may have access to encrypted satellite transmission on fair terms. I am not suggesting that those who supply and create the technology should not be able to benefit from their hard work, but we cannot afford to allow relatively few players to slice up the cake throughout Europe and then deny other people access. That is precisely what is happening now through the Murdoch organisation.

The time has come when the House must introduce a privacy Bill. Having taken a lead in the matter, I have been surprised in the past couple of weeks to discover the strength of support for such a measure from Opposition Members and from my hon. Friends. The time has come to introduce such a measure for the sake of democracy in this country. That does not mean that it should protect the high, the mighty or even Members of Parliament. It means that it should protect the people.

We must make electronic eavesdropping a criminal offence. We must control media intrusion by telephoto lenses and trespass to a greater extent than is currently the case. If hon. Members ask people, "Should there be a privacy Bill?", they say, "No, you are just trying to protect yourselves." If they then ask those people, "If it is your phone that is being tapped or your wife who is being photographed in her bikini, with the pictures appearing in a tabloid newspaper, how do you feel about it?", they receive a different response. The introduction of a privacy Bill is in the public interest. We need an independent press tribunal with statutory powers to act in the public interest. The Press Complaints Commission has failed this country dismally. It is time for it to go and for us to have a proper and statutory independent regulator.

I have mentioned a few omissions from the Gracious Speech, but I am confident that they will all be introduced under other measures to be laid before hon. Members.

Column 108

9.41 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). We sympathise and empathise with the point that he made on behalf of the individual, who will benefit from and be satisfied with a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people. Many hon. Members would go along with his view on privacy, provided that there was also a freedom of information Act on the statute book. The linking of a privacy Bill with a freedom of information Bill would show that we support the principle of having some privacy and opening up the books, figures and secret information that are not available to the public. If we had that balance, we would have a better society and a better press. I am aware that I am ending the debate on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) opened it on their behalf. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) referred to the fact that a number of questions were put to my right hon. Friend and that he did not receive the answers that he thought he should receive.

It was interesting to see shoals of Tory Members ready to leap to their feet to tackle my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield when they saw the Chief Whip, the Deputy Chief Whip or a Treasury Minister make a little movement of the hand. We saw my right hon. Friend dispatch them quickly and effectively with answers that they did not like. That is one of the difficulties that Opposition Members recognise in relation to the Government and to Conservative Members, who are not in touch with what the people of our country feel or think on a variety of issues, from employment, investment and job security to the nature of the society in which they live. That failure to understand the feelings of the country is transmitted in the House through foolish, mediocre and banal questions that are swiftly dispatched by my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Taunton talked about the Prime Minister's facts and figures. The Prime Minister gave us the same myths and the same shibboleths as we have heard time and again from the Government. Such selective facts or simple quotations are not supported by evidence, which I shall discuss.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), who I am glad to see in his place, referred to the 400,000 drop in unemployment. He got the background to that right. He spoke about the reason for it and he compared youth unemployment in this country with that in other European nation states. He also threw in Billy Liar. I am not able, because of the generation gap, to know too much about Billy Liar. I do know, however, about Walter Mitty. We know all about mental health. One of the most interesting speeches of the CBI conference this year was made by the Secretary of State for Health, at a gathering of a thousand members. All the captains of industry were there on a very dark and murky morning in Birmingham. All were eating high-cholesterol food for breakfast, and the Secretary of State chose mental health as her subject. I thought that it was very apt to come to a CBI conference and talk about mental health. Again it shows just how much the Government are out of touch.

I welcome the fact, as mentioned in the Gracious Speech, that the Government

Column 109

"will work for early implementation of the Agreement concluding the GATT trade negotiations, and for early establishment of the World Trade Organisation."

The Labour party has consistently supported GATT and its opening up of world trade. We were the original signatories way back in 1948. We criticised the Government for not going far enough in bringing financial services into GATT. We hope that they will work on that when the new World Trade Organisation is set up.

We have also insisted that the Government make appropriate provision, as part of the GATT, for social legislation in other countries, social rights- -a veritable social chapter for GATT throughout the world. It is interesting to note that the Government, under pressure from the United States Administration, have agreed to look at those aspects under an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development investigation. So we shall follow that with great interest.

It was also of interest to see in the Gracious Speech support for "continuing economic growth and rising employment, based on permanently low inflation."

We particularly like the phrase:

"My Government will reduce the share of national income taken by the public sector."

I thought it very rich of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) to intervene on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames left the present incumbent of the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer with a public sector borrowing requirement of £51,000 million, which even the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to and said, "Well, he did leave me that, didn't he?" Conservatives talk about our nationalised industries, the PSBR and the money that was put into them. That money was for investment. What we see now is money for consumption, having to pay thousands of millions of pounds in unemployment benefit, pushing up the PSBR. That is where the right hon. Gentleman went very badly wrong. He is the man who gave us Black Wednesday.

The Prime Minister talks of falling unemployment in this country, but this happened because of the 11 per cent. devaluation of the pound. Our trade picked up. It is a classic case of trade picking up after a devaluation. Trade picks up and unemployment falls, but one does not have stability. The Government talk about permanently reducing inflation, but they do not have the stability that exists in Europe, within the exchange rate mechanism, with currencies that are stable one against the other.

We saw yesterday, in the United States, how interest rates have risen. We will shortly see interest rates rise again in this country. The Government cannot within the context of their economic policy deliver low inflation, with productivity and growth rising, and at the same time keep interest rates down. It is beyond them; we see that it is beyond them, as do the public.

The Prime Minister said in his speech that Labour Members should stop knocking industry. He might have dipped into the CBI conference in Birmingham last week. There were nine Labour Members of Parliament to two Conservative. Last year at the conference, John Smith made a speech that received more applause than that of any Conservative Member. This year my hon.

Column 110

Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) spoke. He received greater applause than any Conservative Minister. Again, it shows how out of touch the Government are with the feelings in industry, and throughout the world of commerce. Industry and commerce are listening to the Labour party. They are listening to its ideas and finding an echo back. As I said earlier, that lack of understanding of how the people out there feel is bringing the Government to grief. The Prime Minister spoke about inward investment--Black and Decker in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, NEC in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), and Samsung in the north- east of England. Of course, he gave no credit to the Labour local authorities that helped to bring the investment into those areas. Certainly Samsung would not have come to my area without the help and support of the Labour council. The Government have never properly accepted that fact. The Government are totally divided. They are divided on Europe. We hear Ministers speak and then we see Conservative Members of Parliament queuing up on College green to give television interviews saying that they might not support the Queen's Speech. Whoever heard of a Tory Back-Bench Member telling the public, on the day of the Queen's Speech, that he might not support it?

There is a great rift on Europe, and the same rift exists on regional selective grants and inward investment. The Prime Minister and the President of the Board of Trade both talk about inward investment, but the Secretary of State for Employment says that he does not believe in regional selective grants. At least the Prime Minister had the grace not to say that inward investment would not come to our country if we had a social chapter and a national minimum wage. He was careful and sensible enough not to say that those would be bars to inward investment, so that, if nothing else, was an honest statement.

Considering the Queen's Speech overall, we accept and support some of the measures, such as that on disability. However, we heard what could best be described not as an unexciting Queen's Speech, but as a Queen's Speech with nothing to it. The Government are prepared to try to administer for two and a half years with no ideological backing, simply trying to steer a course between two different shoals in the Tory party, veering first one way and then the other.

The public are entitled to a Government who have the support of their Back Benchers, a Government who know where they are going and will give leadership to the people so that they feel a sense of security in their lives, their jobs, their homes and their families. They have none of that from a Conservative Government whose time has passed. Their ideas have passed, too, and soon they should accept that they have no future, go to the country and let the people choose.

9.51 pm

Mr. David Amess (Basildon): The Gracious Speech gives us an opportunity to reflect on our great institutions--the Church, the monarchy, the judiciary and Parliament. Other than God, of course, everything is transitory: the sovereign, the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister. I believe that they are doing a magnificent

Column 111

job and that those institutions are fundamental to society. I support them, and there is little that I want changed in the way in which they work.

It is the institution itself that is all-important. There can be little doubt that in recent times what I regard as the tendency to dwell on the behaviour of certain players has damaged the institutions in the eyes of everyone, especially in the eyes of our constituents. I hope that those people who are engaged in dwelling on individuals' behaviour fully understand the damage that is being done in our country today. I also hope that the members of those institutions realise the responsibility, not only to themselves but to others, that they carry.

I know that many people say that the Government should consolidate, and should not move forward with a radical programme. I do not support that view. It is a little like riding a bicycle: consolidating rather than moving forward is a recipe for stagnation. We can all think of previous Governments who did that, at their peril.

I have never minded the Conservative party, or myself, being unpopular, so long as the policies are right for this country and we are prepared to argue for and explain them to the British people. I do not want this or any other Government whom I support to suffer an attack of nerves or a loss of confidence. Although I accept that our majority is smaller than it has been in previous Parliaments, I very much believe that my colleagues will respond to strong, determined and courageous leadership, of which the Prime Minister has shown himself to be more than capable. I am thinking especially of Northern Ireland.

It would be a great mistake for the Conservative party to try to ape one of the present socialist parties--Labour--by doing nothing and saying nothing other than "yah boo." After all, it is only too clear what a mess that gets us into with the media when they find precious little news to occupy their time. I am delighted that the Government have decided to continue with their radical programme.

I refer first to the economy. There can be little doubt that the economy is in good shape, with the lowest inflation for 27 years, strong growth and a sharp fall in unemployment. Unemployment in my constituency fell today by 101, a drop of 2 per cent. Incidentally, unemployment has dropped by 21 per cent. since the general election. I pay tribute to all the people who have made that possible. There should be no mystery about why there is no feel- good factor at the moment. The reason is the loss of value in people's properties and especially the use of people's properties to raise money on their businesses. I hope that, as we continue our economic policy, that situation will change.

As a Conservative, I have always believed in reducing direct taxation while putting the burden on indirect taxation. That is why I believe that it is necessary to continue to shrink public sector spending. I confess to the House, however, that I do not underestimate the enormous challenge that my party faces in combating the Labour

Column 112

party's economic policy, which it revealed some weeks ago. I quote the words of the shadow Chancellor, who said:

"Our new economic approach is rooted in ideas, which stress the importance of macro economics, neo-classical endogenous growth theory and the symbiotic relationships between growth and investment in people and infrastructure."

My constituents in Basildon have been talking of nothing else since.

The Gracious Speech also gives us an opportunity to show our patriotism. I refer in particular to the measure on the channel tunnel. How often have I heard it said that transport is better in France, that the streets are cleaner in Germany and that people work harder in Japan, none of which is true. When I travelled on Eurostar last Monday, I had in my mind the propaganda that claimed that Britain had failed miserably in terms of its rail infrastructure compared to the continentals. I felt enormously proud that it was a Conservative Government who had the vision to fulfil a 100- year-old dream by building the channel tunnel. We left a magnificent facility at Waterloo, travelled at 186 mph and arrived in a dump of a station called Brussels Midi.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) said earlier today that the good thing about the River Thames was that it separated Essex from Kent. I know that he meant that in a friendly fashion. Likewise, I look forward to the debates ahead on the rail link through the garden of England. I hope that my old home ground of Stratford in east London will eventually be allowed to develop its site as a link station in the whole project.

I entirely understand the reference to Europe in the Gracious Speech. I recall well the time when a Conservative Government took us into Europe and I also recall that it was a socialist Government who held a referendum. I have no natural liking for referendums because I believe that general elections are the mechanism for political momentum and change. However, I believe in referendums where there is a clear issue of sovereignty.

It is said that the Conservative party is split on Europe. The record shows that the Conservative Government took us into Europe and have made all the running since, whereas the Labour party has changed its mind practically every other year. I do not think that it is right that year in and year out the Conservative party continues to take the flak on that matter, so I hope that when a united states of Europe, with one Government and one currency, is proposed the issue will be put to the British people, not in a general election but in a referendum.

I end my speech by referring to other measures that I hope will be laid before the House. Crime is caused by poor example and lack of individual responsibility. We should all be concerned at the level of crime because our constituents certainly are. I successfully introduced a ten-minute Bill --

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

Column 113

Maternity Services (Dunfermline)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Wells.]

10 pm

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I wish that I was here tonight to praise the new obstetric unit at the Queen Margaret hospital in Dunfermline and the service that it was providing to the men and women of West Fife. Unfortunately, I am not able to do so. I am not able to do so because, a year ago, the Government closed Dunfermline maternity hospital. I am not able to do so because, for months, the £1.5 million new obstetric unit at the Queen Margaret hospital was allowed to gather dust. It was allowed to gather dust because, until recently, it was occupied by elderly patients who were forced out of the wards built for them by dampness and by the incompetence of the Scottish Office, the health board and the contractors.

I am not able to praise the maternity service at the Queen Margaret hospital because, despite massive opposition, the Government decided to centralise the service in Kirkcaldy. A year may have gone past, but the Minister will be aware that not only am I still angry, but my constituents are still angry, too.

I want to outline once again the strong arguments for establishing a maternity service in Dunfermline, and establishing it now. However, I shall begin by praising the majority of the health service staff in Fife who deliver the obstetrics service.

There have been a number of complaints during the past 12 months which have revolved particularly around the distance that many of my constituents now have to travel to reach the maternity service in Kirkcaldy. That has led, as we predicted, to a number of women literally giving birth at roundabouts on the road to Kirkcaldy, or getting to the hospital with only minutes to spare. Such events have highlighted the reasons why a maternity service should be restored to Dunfermline for safety purposes.

However, we are not criticising the majority of health service staff: we are criticising three distinctive groups. First, a small but clearly powerful group of medical personnel decided that it suited them, not my constituents, to centralise the service. Secondly, criticisms are directed at the health board for giving in to the medics and for not providing the public with the service they want and for which they have paid. Last but not least, our criticisms are directed at the Government, who blatantly went against the commitment they gave to provide locally based maternity services.

I shall briefly go over some of the key arguments which have been used in this continuing debate. The Minister and the Government have argued that the safe care of a mother and child can be provided only by a centralised service in Kirkcaldy. It is clear that many consultant paediatricians and obstetricians feel that only they can prevent a return to the days of high infant and maternal mortality. However, the Government should be aware that there is little or no evidence for such a claim, and that the improvements in the obstetrics service and in the health of mothers and babies have been due to several significant factors, such as the decline in fertility, the use of antibiotics, health education and nutrition.

Column 114

There is growing evidence that a midwife-led service is at least as safe as that under the direction of an obstetrician. There is no doubt about the kind of service that mothers prefer. They prefer a service which is midwife-led and which provides continuity of care and allows them to get to know two or three individuals well who are with them throughout the pregnancy, and a service in which a woman feels that she is being treated as a individual and not as a battery hen.

The second report of the Select Committee on Health states in volume I, paragraph 33:

"On the basis of what we have heard, this Committee must draw the conclusion that the policy of encouraging all women to give birth in hospitals cannot be justified on grounds of safety . . . Given the absence of conclusive evidence, it is no longer acceptable that the pattern of maternity care provision should be driven by presumptions about the applicability of a medical model of care based on unproven assertions."

There is no reason why a safe service could not now be provided in Dunfermline.

Unfortunately, a few births lead to complications and require specialist facilities. I agree that they occur in Kirkcaldy, but they were present in Kirkcaldy when we had a service in Dunfermline. Apart from one occasion, I know of no complaint about that mixture of care.

There is no reason now why a good emergency service for unanticipated difficult pregnancies cannot be proved at Dunfermline. Dunfermline has a flying squad, which has visited at least one of my constituents because she could not get to Kirkcaldy in time. There are also facilities at the new district general hospital, which is a trauma hospital with theatre cover, an intensive care unit, an anaesthetist on site and appropriate medical staff immediately available.

Will the Minister tell me why, in the case of a last-minute, unexpected complication, it is considered more suitable for a woman in that state to be required to move to Kirkcaldy than to ask a consultant to get in his car and travel to Dunfermline? As my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) will testify, other health boards, such as Forth Valley and Tayside, provide out-of-hours cover on a rotation basis. Why cannot that be done in Fife?

There has been talk about training for junior doctors being used as an excuse. Frankly, I am surprised that the Government have not told the doctors that they have a responsibility to sort out a service which meets the public need and in respect of which the needs of the many prevail over the wishes of the few.

I have mentioned travel, and I want to highlight some of the problems that my constituents face in travelling to Kirkcaldy. I have received comments made in the last month by women who have had to travel to Kirkcaldy. I want to read some of them out without any editing on my part--

"Distance to Kirkcaldy too great.

Far too great a distance.

We're going back to the 19th century

Putting mother an baby at risk with distance to travel in car. I had my baby in 40 minutes 3 pm wouldn't have made it to the hospital. Very uncomfortable during journey.

Far too great a distance.

Too far to travel.

Too far to travel."

The comments go on and on in that vein. That is what members of the public are saying.

Next Section

  Home Page