Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Griffiths: Do you have a fax?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This is a Back-Bench debate for half an hour. Sedentary comments from any part of the House are not acceptable.

Mr. Sweeney: The deputy leader of the council receives a fax and a mobile phone. The chief whip receives a pager, a fax and a mobile phone. The leaders of the minority groups get a fax and a mobile phone.

19 Mar 1997 : Column 851

All chairmen of committees receive a pager, a fax and a mobile phone. If the council is so hard up, how can it be spending money on things like that? Where do its priorities lie? Of course we want better leisure facilities and so on, but can anyone seriously doubt that we could make some savings in those budgets to help the children of the Vale, who represent our future?

I appreciate the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister to the principle of allowing local authorities to take their own decisions. Naturally, in a democracy, that is important. However, I recall too well that the Labour-controlled South Glamorgan county council and the neighbouring authorities failed to fund the police adequately. In the end, to combat rising crime, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, supported by the Welsh Office, took the dramatic decision to ring-fence police funding to ensure that the police received all the money that they desperately needed. The result has been 30 extra police officers in Vale of Glamorgan and a considerable drop in recorded crime during the past two years.

I have reluctantly reached the conclusion, as a result of the appalling mismanagement by Vale of Glamorgan council, that the only way in which we can ensure that our children receive the best possible education is to hypothecate education spending in the standard spending assessment and to conduct an urgent audit of authorities such as Vale of Glamorgan, to find out why they are failing dismally to run their affairs in a way calculated to protect our children's future.

The public in Vale of Glamorgan should know how much we pay our chief officers compared with the much larger South Glamorgan county council, which has been abolished, how top-heavy staffing levels are, what proportion of the education budget is spent on administration, what proportion gets through to the schools, and what proportion of the total budget is spent on education in comparison with other matters. I would welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on that.

In conclusion, I make no apology for making a political point. If that is the way in which Councillor Stringer and his new Labour colleagues treat parents, teachers, governors and children, it illustrates very well why new Labour should not be trusted in local government, or at Westminster.

1.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Jonathan Evans): My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) has performed a valuable service by drawing the attention of the House to the budget plans of Vale of Glamorgan council. As the debate unfolded, he illustrated the need for much greater accountability on the part of local government.

There has been use in our press of the word "cuts". In today's Western Mail, at least two articles referring specifically to budget items in Wales use that word. In neither of those instances is it explained that the cuts are not cuts in spending but cuts in the aspirations of local

19 Mar 1997 : Column 852

authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan said, the budget of Vale of Glamorgan district council has been increased.

Mr. Griffiths indicated dissent.

Mr. Evans: It has indeed. In fact, the money available to the council to spend in the current financial year will increase to about £97,404,000.

Mr. Richards: My hon. Friend will be aware of the scandalous way in which Conwy county borough council has deceived parents in my constituency. The council claims that there have been cuts in its budget. Will my hon. Friend nail that lie once and for all? Will he tell the House, the country and my constituents how much more cash Conwy county borough council will have to spend in the forthcoming financial year than it is spending this year?

Mr. Evans: I can tell my hon. Friend that his authority is the one for whom the capping principles have worked out best. It is allowed the biggest percentage increase in expenditure in Wales--an increase of more than £4 million.

If there is to be accountability, there must be a clear assessment of the way in which the funding made available to each authority is used. It is for local authorities to decide how much money to make available for spending on categories such as education. Performance tables of local authorities have been published, and the Audit Commission issued a report on their performance in 1995-96.

Authorities in Wales have undergone wide-scale reform, with the creation of the new unitary authorities. An interesting aspect of the accountability of the old county council was that South Glamorgan county council was one of the best-provided authorities in Wales, and the United Kingdom, but spent on its secondary school pupils the fourth lowest sum of any United Kingdom county council.

That is what accountability should be about. Newspapers should analyse the spending plans of councils instead of unquestioningly accepting press statements issued by authorities, talking about cuts, and echoing them in headlines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan said that he wanted sight of the budget of Vale of Glamorgan council. It appears that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has had sight of much more information than has been made available by the council to its elected representative. That is also a matter of accountability, to which our press might like to pay attention.

Mr. Griffiths: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Evans: Just a moment. I want to draw attention to some figures first.

In the last financial year, Vale of Glamorgan council gave a far lower priority to education in its spending than did very many authorities in Wales. Parents of nursery and primary school children in Vale of Glamorgan might like to note that last year, on average, nursery and primary schools in Vale of Glamorgan received £85 per capita less

19 Mar 1997 : Column 853

than the Welsh average. Parents of secondary school pupils in Vale of Glamorgan might like to note that, per capita, £159 less was spent on secondary school pupils in Vale of Glamorgan than the Welsh average.

Mr. Griffiths: Those figures have been available from the council and in the Western Mail to be read by anyone. As early as 7 March 1997, the head teachers issued a joint statement with the council, saying that there would be no compulsory redundancies and no increase in class sizes. That has been in the papers too, and I cannot see how the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) did not know about that.

Mr. Evans: I refer merely to the two stories in the Western Mail today. Both talk about cuts; neither talks about the increased budget for expenditure for each of those councils. The day that I see journalists putting the full story before the electorate in Wales will be the day that I withdraw the remark.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Bridgend got to his feet, because I have figures on the expenditure of Bridgend unitary council. He is the education spokesman for the Labour party in Wales, and he said today that parents in Vale of Glamorgan had nothing to worry about. Although spending in Vale of Glamorgan is significantly below the Welsh average, to observe the worst performance in investment in education per capita in Wales one need look no further than the hon. Gentleman's constituency. His friends and supporters provide the nursery and primary schools in his area with £233 per head less than the Welsh average. As if that were not bad enough, when those pupils get into secondary schools, the Labour-controlled council provides £339 per head less than the Welsh average.

From all this, it is clear that, when Labour councils are allowed to choose how much priority to give to education in their areas, they are all words and no action. Their action is confined to putting out press releases, organising marches and protests and talking about education underfunding. The only underfunding going on is the underfunding of schools by the Labour party, which controls so much of education in Wales.

As far as I am aware, the Labour party is offering only one pledge on education at this election. It is a pledge to skew resources from the parts of Wales where there are smaller classes to the parts where there are larger classes. It is no surprise to discover that the areas with the biggest classes are Labour authority areas, and the areas with the best investment in primary and secondary education are those not controlled by the Labour party. Those are the areas which, if Labour ever came to office, would be starved of resources: just as Labour has starved its own areas of resources.

19 Mar 1997 : Column 854


1.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): My debate today is on the subject of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, to which I shall refer from here on as MRSA.

MRSA is a bacterium that is resistant to treatment by the usual range of antibiotics. Although it is not necessarily more virulent than other infections, the range of treatment options is more limited because of patients' resistance to the more commonly used antibiotics.

Many of us harbour MRSA without its causing us any harm, but carriers can pass it on to vulnerable patients with serious, sometimes fatal, consequences. MRSA contributes to the deaths of thousands of people in hospitals, yet it goes unrecorded and even unrecognised by the Department of Health.

The Government's failure to take measures to control MRSA is causing serious infections that are difficult to treat. That in turn leads to an increase in the drugs bill and in other treatment costs, and it can lead also to the need to close down wards and special units, thereby disrupting the running of hospitals. That will continue until and unless the Minister or his successor recognises that we face a problem of epidemic proportions.

The seriousness of the problem was demonstrated in May 1994 when a military hospital in Cambridge had to be closed for a week. Screening showed that there was a problem at the hospital, and the Ministry of Defence took rigorous preventive measures, including the application of antibiotics. It would be much more difficult to do the same in a national health service hospital; but the incident underscored how seriously the Ministry of Defence took the matter in a hospital for which it was responsible.

I became aware of MRSA after listening, in November of last year, to a moving speech in the other place by my good friend Lord Fitt of Belfast, whose wife, a lifelong sufferer from asthma, went into hospital to be treated for that condition but fell victim to MRSA and subsequently died. He drew the attention of the other place to the scale of the problem and to the hazards that it posed for people with respiratory complaints, people suffering from septicaemia, and in general the weak and the elderly.

More recently, one of my constituents also fell victim to MRSA. On 24 January he was admitted to Basildon hospital with a bad chest infection, later diagnosed as pneumonia. On 5 February his daughter was told that he had MRSA. Being of an inquiring mind and deeply concerned about her father's condition, she found out what MRSA was: that it is a life-threatening condition. She complained that the hospital had not been completely frank with her or explained the seriousness of the problem.

My constituent's daughter also asked whether anyone else had been infected. It was confirmed that a lady had recently been transferred to another hospital in the trust group where screening is performed, even though I understand that it is not done at Basildon hospital. Orsett hospital is in Thurrock; incidentally, the trust has tried in the past to close it down. It is still under threat--just another example, I suppose, of "what we have, quite rightly, we wish to hold".

On 6 February my constituent's daughter was told that her father had been given an antibiotic. She challenged that because the hospital had told her earlier that antibiotics

19 Mar 1997 : Column 855

were not available to treat the condition. That caused some consternation at the other end of the telephone line. She was then told that her father was not actually being given an antibiotic to combat MRSA. Further inquiries elicited the information that Basildon hospital did not test for MRSA, as that was considered too expensive.

Unfortunately, my constituent died on 8 February. The death certificate mentioned pneumonia; it did not say that MRSA had made a big contribution to the death.

I did a bit of ferreting around in the Library and discovered that 15 hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is with me this morning, had already probed the Department about this tremendous scandal, but their efforts had hitherto not been fully co-ordinated; neither had the Government been arraigned for their dilatory stewardship. Furthermore, five Lords besides Lord Fitt, I discovered, had raised the matter in another place.

I then tabled my own questions, the answers to which revealed widespread ignorance on the part of the Minister and the Department of Health about which hospitals screen for MRSA. They had no knowledge of the incidence of the infection in the UK because of the lack of screening; they did not know which hospitals kept antibiotics to combat MRSA; and they clearly did not know the number of deaths in which it has been a contributory factor. I asked the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland parallel questions. Their replies, too, showed the same widespread ignorance of the scale of this epidemic--and breathtaking indifference to it.

The Minister was able to reveal, from the voluntary reporting undertaken by some hospitals, that 177 English hospitals had more than 19,000 patients affected by MRSA last year--up from 2,200 in 1992. But the total incidence of this virulent bacterium was unknown.

Next Section

IndexHome Page