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Mr. Prescott: Yes, I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. There are difficulties. We have already made a start on 50 per cent. of the empty homes in our towns and cities. My colleague said at Question Time that we are considering the point that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has made.

The provision of housing in rural areas is an important issue. I recently visited one of the dale areas. A farmer complained that he wanted to convert a farm into two or three houses for local residents but was prevented by the planning authority's requirements, simply because he apparently said--I do not know whether it is true--that people would live in the houses and hang their washing on the line, and that a road would have to built. We must change such attitudes, because some rural areas as well as some urban areas suffer genuine problems. Housing is equally important in rural and urban areas.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I welcome the Green Paper that my right hon. Friend introduced this afternoon. I represent a constituency that contains 3,000 older empty terraced houses, and I urge my right hon. Friend to acknowledge the wide variation of housing problems in various parts of the country. We must ensure that our policy is flexible. I also urge him to press the Treasury to look again at reducing VAT on housing repairs and renovation, because that would do a lot for areas with older housing stock, which cannot be renovated because people cannot afford it.

Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. I acknowledge the problem of the variation in housing in all our cities. I can recall the housing to which my hon. Friend refers from my visits to Burnley. The Green Paper tries to deal with all the different sorts of properties. Our policy is about homes for all, whether in the public or the private sector.

My hon. Friend's second point, about VAT, was a recommendation of Lord Rogers. We have considered whether the fiscal framework can assist in such programmes. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said in the Budget statement that he wants to consider the way in which the fiscal framework can help. The matter is not a complete write-off; we are continuing to consider it. I bear in mind Lord Rogers' recommendations in his urban regeneration report, which I commissioned.

My hon. Friend made two points; he could have made a third. We have agreed a settlement on overhanging debt to help Burnley to tackle its housing problems.

Mr. Pike: Thank you.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): As a former housing association director and chair of a housing committee, I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to end the illogical investment rules for housing

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associations and local authorities. It gives local authorities a genuine opportunity to use investment to tackle housing need in their areas.

What plans has my right hon. Friend to deal with the problem of the differences in rents between housing associations and local authorities and between regions? Often, similar properties have widely varying rents regardless of their condition. How does my right hon. Friend intend to tackle that and thus facilitate the provision of more choice for our tenants and residents, and end the scandal of the massive increases in council and housing association rents which happened under the previous Government?

Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for her supportive remarks. I readily acknowledge her active part in housing. As she said, the local authority changes should have happened a long time ago. I am delighted to end that discrimination and place faith in local authorities to begin to build good quality houses in the public sector.

My hon. Friend's other important point is covered in the Green Paper. It is amazing to consider the different rent structures not only between local authorities and housing corporations but for the same sort of house in different local authority areas. The differences between regions are a genuine problem. We acknowledge that there must be a social rent that is below the market rent, but we need to establish uniform principles that apply to the rent structure. Tackling that would have consequential effects on housing benefit and on the role of housing finance to which we are committed in the Green Paper.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I too welcome the Green Paper and the way in which it moves housing further up the agenda. Did the Deputy Prime Minister share some of my incredulity when listening to the remarks of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) on the key workers scheme? He suggested that he could not perceive a difference between people in different parts of the country. However, in the north of England, nurses who earn £14,000 may be able to buy a four-bedroomed terraced house for £10,000. Meanwhile, a house in Tower Hamlets in my constituency has just gone for £500,000.

In the light of that, will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that help will also go to other vital workers, such as hospital porters, cleaners and waste collectors, so that people living in areas with high increases in house prices get a chance to have a decent house and a roof over their head?

Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for her warm words of support. She makes a powerful point about key workers. The proposal covers not only those workers whom I have mentioned, but people who are in difficult circumstances in areas of high-cost housing, which are not necessarily limited to London and the south-east. There are various key workers, such as hospital porters, nurses and teachers. We will leave local authorities and the appropriate bodies to make a judgment. We must clearly address that problem.

Key workers are an essential part of the programme; important workers need housing. However, I shall resist saying what I was going to add.

Madam Speaker: In that case, I shall resist calling any more questions.

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Health Care Standards for Elderly Persons

4.26 pm

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): I beg to move,

I am presenting the Bill to highlight the national problem of age discrimination in health services, including dental services, and to urge the Government to set up a national inquiry to investigate the massive evidence of discrimination and prejudice against the elderly. The Bill is backed by Age Concern, and has the wholehearted support of Help the Aged. I should like to thank everyone in those organisations for their dedication and commitment to the elderly. I should particularly like to thank Julia Lueginger and Caroline Gilchrist of Age Concern for their terrific support and expertise in helping to produce the Bill.

It is an open secret that elderly people are vulnerable and do not receive the same quality of treatment as younger people. They may not be as physically active as younger people, and may not be able to communicate as well. There is clearly prejudice at work, because the elderly do not always receive the respect that they deserve.

I am not saying that the national health service is, per se, discriminatory against the elderly--it is not. Thousands of caring auxiliaries, nurses, doctors and consultants fight day in and day out to give the best possible care and treatment to the elderly. I salute them, as I know that they work under great pressure. I have seen that at first hand, and I am amazed at how well they cope. Many older people have said that they have received outstanding care, but worryingly the multitude of evidence that has been sent to Age Concern shows that there is a case to answer.

The country was delighted with the Chancellor's announcement in the Budget of £2 billion of extra money this financial year, with a promise to drive up health spending towards the European Union average. That is long overdue, and I warmly welcome it. However, it must go hand in hand with more modernisation and an improvement in standards. I want measures to stamp out discrimination against the elderly, and a real commitment to improving health care standards for older people.

I appreciate the fact that the Government will publish later this year a national service framework for older people. However, I believe that an inquiry is still needed to establish the size of the problem, and to send a strong signal to pensioners that the Government are listening to them. It is not about better service decisions in the future, but about stamping out discrimination now.

This weekend, The Sunday Times reported the allegations of a junior doctor, Rita Pal, who came across examples of discrimination because of the age of the patient. I understand that a dossier containing the allegations has been sent to the General Medical Council. Two weeks earlier, an undercover Sunday Times reporter had found other cases of mistreatment of the elderly.

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Since launching its campaign, Age Concern has been inundated with hundreds of detailed accounts of elderly people receiving poor to appalling treatment. Its report, "Turning your back on us", graphically illustrates the point. Four new cases provide examples of the continuing discrimination experienced by the elderly and their relatives.

The first case concerns an elderly lady from London. Her daughter reports that she suffered initially from a chest infection; however, when the daughter visited her in hospital, she found new bruises on her body. She also found that her mother sometimes received no assistance with feeding, that pills were left by her bedside, and that an oxygen tube was not plugged in. That elderly lady died.

The second case, in Nottingham, involves an 84-year-old lady who, at 75, was told by her GP that she was suffering from a build-up of cholesterol. However, she was allegedly told that the cut-off age for cholesterol treatment was 70. She never received the treatment on the NHS.

The third case is that of an elderly lady from Berkshire, who was admitted to hospital for a routine operation and, unfortunately, was then rushed into intensive care. It is alleged that she was moved out of intensive care early to make way for a 30-year-old woman. The elderly lady subsequently died.

The fourth case concerns an 81-year-old lady from Darlington, who suffered for seven months owing to a misdiagnosis by a GP and the local hospital. Doctors did not believe her desperate cries of constant pain, which they put down to arthritis and emotional distress. In fact, it was not all in her head: it turned out to be cancer.

Those cases and many more are subject to internal complaints procedures and ombudsman reviews. Each case on its own could be dismissed as an isolated one, but the sheer weight of cases adds up to something far more serious. There is clearly discrimination against older people in parts of the NHS, although it is not limited to the NHS; I would say that the problem exists throughout today's society.

We would rightly never stand for discrimination against people because of the colour of their skin, their sex or their sexuality. I fear that a lack of respect for older people is becoming endemic across society. Medical decisions should be made solely on a basis of clinical need. I believe that, as well as providing decent, fair standards of health care based on clinical need, we should ensure that we fulfil a debt of gratitude to that generation. A generation who survived Hitler's blitz deserve the best health care.

The elderly are not a drain or a burden on the health service; they are the pioneers who designed and built the NHS. In its campaign "Dignity on the Ward", Help the Aged draws attention to the need to change the views of certain medical professionals about the elderly. Some 1,300 people wrote supporting the campaign and highlighting appalling standards of care in--again--parts of the NHS.

We are not talking just about discrimination that prevents people from receiving treatment; this goes much further. We need to stamp out the second-class-citizen mentality that is sometimes found nowadays. Older people deserve respect. Sometimes they are frightened to speak out, fearing that their treatment will be stopped, or never started, if they complain.

4 Apr 2000 : Column 829

Age Concern discovered from a Gallup survey that one in 20 people over 65 had been refused treatment, while one in 10 felt that they had been treated differently since turning 50. It has been found that four out of 10 coronary care units apply age restrictions to certain drugs, that two thirds of kidney patients over 70 have been refused dialysis or transplants, and that some clinical trials involve age limits. That is blatant, unacceptable discrimination.

I urge the Government to set up a national inquiry to investigate this national scandal. We need to establish the extent of the discrimination that is spreading across society, to identify the underlying reasons for it, and to come up with new ways of rooting out the prejudice and discrimination. We need to educate, and to raise awareness of the problems. Above all, we need to send a clear signal to everyone in the NHS that discrimination will not be tolerated.

As for those--I shall call them angels--in the NHS who care so well for the elderly: I thank them. We must aim to raise standards to their level--to be sensitive, patient and respectful to the elderly. As for the minority who discriminate against and abuse the elderly, I remind them of this: one day, they too will grow old. I urge the House to support the Bill and to end discrimination against the elderly in the health care services.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paul Marsden, Mr. David Amess, Mr. John Austin, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Paul Burstow, Dr. Vincent Cable, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Dr. Doug Naysmith, Mr. Edward O'Hara, Ms Linda Perham and Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones.

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