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6.20 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn): Like some other contributors to this debate, I have had a lengthy period of enforced silence. It is nice to find my voice again in this House. My last speech in this House was so long ago that I made it from the Opposition Benches. It was in a different era--so long ago that John Major was Prime Minister,

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Blackburn Rovers played in Europe and the now right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) was a right winger.

It gives me great pleasure to give a broad welcome to the Queen's Speech. It is right that the Government, as they begin their second term, should concentrate on the issues on which they won the general election: improving public services, getting extra investment into schools, hospitals and the police, and, crucially, reforming those services.

One thing that surprised me when I was out campaigning in my constituency and in others last month was the sheer anger at the way in which some people are treated by those working in our public services. As someone who has always been a strong supporter of the police, I was particularly surprised at the anger among victims of crime over the way in which they are treated by the police force in Lancashire. Many constituents told me that, having been burgled, they had rung the police but the police did not seem to care and took a long time to visit them--sometimes not even on the same day. That is unacceptable. I therefore welcome the police Bill in the Queen's Speech.

Of course we all want extra police officers. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) said that police numbers in Lancashire have been falling but that now they are going up again. That is good, but the matter is not just one of police numbers and money. We need to reform the culture of the service, consider greater civilianisation of the police and ask whether we have struck the right balance between the numbers of traffic police and those tackling burglaries, because I am not sure that we have in Lancashire.

I am also pleased that there will be a Bill on House of Lords reform. That early pledge appeared in Labour's first manifesto 101 years ago, and we are just getting round to addressing it. I am not sure whether old Labour was very good at delivering on its early pledges.

To a certain extent, the Government have done the politically easy part--from Labour's point of view--by proceeding with abolishing hereditary peers, and hurrah for that. What an anachronism they are in the 21st century. However, I issue a friendly warning to Government Front Benchers. Getting rid of hereditaries is one thing, but it is much harder to build a consensus on what should replace the House of Lords in the second stage of reform. I am not terribly convinced by the proposals on offer.

I have always preferred a unicameral Parliament, which would have a couple of immediate good effects. The first would be to enhance at a stroke the status of this House, about which hon. Members have been complaining for years. Secondly, it would stop the Government--I do not mean my Government but any Government--introducing badly drafted legislation. There is a temptation for Governments to do so--I was a bit of an expert on this about a year ago--when they know that they have the backstop of the House of Lords to change the Bill.

How many times have hon. Members served on Standing Committees, scrutinised legislation for weeks or even months, seen the Bill go off to the other place to return unrecognisable and be given only one day on the Floor of the House to discuss Lords amendments? That is not a sensible way of scrutinising legislation in a modern democracy and we should change it.

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The other reason why I am worried about House of Lords reform is that I do not want people to be appointed to my Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) said that he opposed an elected second Chamber, but I take a different view. I am completely in favour of a wholly elected second Chamber with prescribed powers. Such a Chamber might operate like a small senate. It does our democracy no good if Parliament has Members who are not accountable to the people, so we should consider the alternatives.

On Europe, I welcome the announcement of a Bill to ratify the treaty of Nice. I am very keen for the European Union to be enlarged. I also want the British Government to have a greater say in the Council of Ministers, which will be achieved through the re-weighting of votes. As a friendly criticism, I point out to my Government that those of us who want the single currency to succeed have been disappointed by how timorous they have been about promoting the concepts of Europe and the single currency. We are not winning the political argument; indeed, we have not even engaged in such an argument on the single currency. We are in a strong position only because of the utter uselessness of the Conservatives in adopting their ridiculous "Only 12 days to save the pound" campaign two weeks before polling day. That was nonsense and people knew it, but the issue is nevertheless going by default. I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said yesterday, but I want the Government to adopt a much stronger tone in making the case for Europe as a whole and the single currency in particular.

On education, we have made some great steps forward in the primary sector. Standards are going up, class sizes are falling and investment is going in throughout my constituency. There is a welcome building programme, which is a tangible sign of our investment in public services. However, surely the time has come to make such a step change in the secondary sector.

I have a couple of particular worries about education, the first of which concerns specialist schools. I have no problem with such schools and am proud that a school with technology college status, the Hollins, is situated in my constituency, but I am worried about the idea of capping their number. As they are a good idea and there are objective criteria, why cannot every school aspire to be a specialist school? My second concern relates to admissions. Admissions policy is in an absolute mess throughout my constituency, and I am sure that the same applies throughout Lancashire and many other local education authority areas. In my constituency, children who live cheek by jowl with their local schools are being offered places at schools that are situated eight miles away, which is completely unacceptable. I am sure that the education Bill will deal with admissions, on which I hope that the Government will get a grip.

I am pleased that we will have a free vote on foxhunting, about which hundreds of people have written to me to express their dismay. I could not explain to them how a Government with a majority of 178 did not manage to ban foxhunting, and they will be even more dismayed if a Government with a similar majority fail to ban it in a second term. I say to the Government that a free vote is one thing, but once such a vote has occurred, a Bill must be introduced at an early opportunity. They must have the political will and courage to use the Parliament Acts to force through the will of the House of Commons on foxhunting.

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I want briefly to make a couple of further points, the first of which returns me to the speech that I made nine years ago when I entered the House. The speech dealt with housing in my constituency. The truth is that many of my constituents have been failed by us and by the previous Administration. I met a woman who lives in a house that is practically falling down. There are thousands--if not tens of thousands--of such people in my constituency. She told me that she was not going to vote and felt that she had been let down 10 years ago by a Tory Government and a Labour council, and now, when there is a Labour Government and a Tory council. Her house is a disgrace in the modern age, and we must not walk away from such people. I am pleased to be a voice for her in demanding that Lord Falconer visit my constituency in the near future.

My final point may be surprising, given that I spent the past four years as a Government Whip and the preceding two as an Opposition Whip. I believe that the House of Commons matters greatly. I do not want the Chamber to be sidelined; it should be at the heart of national political debate. I welcome the Hansard Society report that was published earlier this week. It contained some interesting ideas and made a welcome contribution to the debate, although I did not agree with all the conclusions. However, it is important to reinvigorate the House if we are to stand any chance of re-engaging with the electorate before the next general election. I look forward to participating in that process.

6.30 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): I welcome Ministers with new responsibilities to the Front Bench and congratulate those who have been promoted. I welcome back the Secretary of State for Health. I do not entirely envy him the task ahead, although I cannot say the same about the salary.

We were treated to two maiden speeches this afternoon. The first was made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), who spoke confidently. He intimated in the Tea Room that he was nervous; he did not show it. His predecessor was never afraid of holding the Executive to account, and I am sure that he wants to maintain the independent stance of both his immediate predecessors, although I hope that he never runs up the repair bills of Ron Brown. He told us that he had been a resident in Edinburgh for 25 years. As someone who comes from the west of Scotland but did general practitioner training outside Edinburgh, I can tell him that it will be another 25 years before he can apply for native status.

We also heard the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who paid tribute to her predecessor, Christopher Fraser. He quickly established a reputation in the House for good humour and authority. Many Conservative Members will miss him as a friend as well as a colleague. I hope that the hon. Lady enjoys the same success and popularity. However, she will understand that it would be disingenuous of me to wish her a longer tenure than her predecessor.

The hon. Lady made an important point that is relevant to many areas, especially in the west and south-west of England, about the area cost adjustment and the amount

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of local government finance that is made available. I am sure that a strong cross-party alliance will press for a review of the method of allocating money, especially to rural areas in those parts of the country.

Many good contributions were made from both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) gave one of the best speeches of the day. He spoke graphically about the human cost of the foot and mouth outbreak. He reminded us that when media attention had moved elsewhere and the general election campaign was in full swing, the suffering continued and still goes on. His explanation brought that home to the whole House.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) talked about the importance of choice in public services and the need to give parents, patients and professionals greater freedom to decide what is best, free from the dead hand of Whitehall.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) criticised omissions from the Gracious Speech at length. He said that, in the next election campaign, the Government could make no excuses for failing to deliver and that prompt action should be taken. I noticed that the Government Whip avidly took notes during that speech.

The hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) showed us that old Labour had not disappeared, but was merely asleep in the Whips Office for four years. He said, "We must find out where the money is being spent before we pour in any more." That statement alone would almost qualify him as a contender for the Tory leadership.

I welcome my friend, the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), to a speaking role. We now have a chance in the House to savour his humour, which we have appreciated in the watering holes of the Palace of Westminster in recent years. His disarming honesty about our methods of legislating and running our affairs was refreshing. We look forward to much more of the same.

Almost all hon. Members who spoke agreed that the Parliament will be about delivery in public services. The Government must provide world class public services by the next election. That does not simply mean better or good public services, but services that can compete with the best in the world.

On health, we must get our targets right above all else. We cannot provide effective services if we cannot decide what we are trying to achieve. Since the inception of the national health service, we have concentrated on input and throughput, and the political argument has been about that. We need to base our targets on outcome. I ask the Secretary of State to consider the need to standardise the methodology of determining outcome in the NHS before we can ensure that our funding is correctly invested. If we do not know what is coming out of the service, and if we cannot measure it properly, we shall largely be working in the dark, irrespective of how much funding we are going to put into the system.

I turn to the proposals in the Gracious Speech. It contains measures that we shall, of course, welcome--not least those on adoption. We are keen to see the envisaged provisions on adoption brought to fruition as quickly as possible, but I stress that all the measures will need proper scrutiny. The Bill will raise many important issues, not least those relating to social services, which will be asked to do much more than they do now. It will be essential to match the tasks being asked of them with the funding

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being guaranteed to them. Nothing could be worse than this House deciding what needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable--in the consensual way that we shall, on this subject--and the money not being available to bring the measures into effect. The House must consider that very carefully. Indeed, the issue of social services provision in general will need to be assessed.

The No. 1 crisis facing the health service at present is that of the number of beds being lost in the care home sector and the consequent number of beds being blocked in the acute sector. Up and down the country, between 10 and 15 per cent. of acute beds are being blocked. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon pointed out, it would be pointless to pour money into the acute sector if there were no beds available in the community to which patients could be discharged. If that were to happen, any increase in money and activity in the acute sector would, paradoxically, block more beds and exacerbate the problems of patients who were waiting.

The Government could, now that they are free from the yah-boo politics of the immediate pre-election period, stand back and consider whether the balance is correct between the level of acute funding and the level of community funding envisaged in the increases set out in the Red Book. That would be a useful initial exercise for them to undertake, and I would say that it is their most urgent task of all.

We were delighted that, immediately after the election, the Secretary of State for Health broke the record for any Government implementing one of the main planks of the Opposition's manifesto by abolishing the waiting list criteria. He did this immediately after the election and just after the announcement of the increase in the number of patients waiting. Those points were raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who spoke of the difficulty of reconciling the Government's stated aims with their actions, which results in increased anger among professionals and patients. General practitioners and consultants are up in arms and threatening to leave the NHS. They say that there is too much red tape, that consultation times have gone down and that they have too little clinical freedom. Those themes were also taken up by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth).

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) also took this view into the field of education, when he spoke of the gap between the Government's rhetoric on education and the reality in the schools in his constituency. The Government will have to address the fact that the huge level of expectation raised during the election has made their job more difficult.

We shall have to look closely at the Government's proposals on two health issues in the Gracious Speech. They want to increase patient representation. In an Orwellian doublespeak way, that means the abolition of the community health councils. I have to say to the Secretary of State that that proposal is no more palatable in this Parliament than it was in the previous one. We might as well look out our notes on that issue, because we are going to have to rehearse all the same arguments all over again. I urge him to think again on that issue.

When the Secretary of State talked about decentralisation, he was moving into the Government's realm of earned autonomy. Earned autonomy means, "You can do what you like, as long as you have agreed

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in advance with the Government what it is going to be." That does not strike me as the sort of decentralisation that those at the sharp end of the services want.

It is also interesting to note what is not in the Gracious Speech. The absence of a ban on tobacco advertising has been mentioned throughout the debate by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Conservative Members never agreed that that was as important as the Government said it was, but if the Government were as sincere as they said they were, it is odd that the provision was not in the Queen's Speech.

The real scandal of omission in the Gracious Speech is that there is no mention of mental health legislation. At the 1997 election, the Labour party said that that was a matter of great urgency, yet nothing was done in its first term and there is nothing in the Gracious Speech. That means that the Government will be at least seven and a half years into their term of office before any changes are made to one of the most important aspects of our legislation. I say to the Secretary of State that that is far too long to wait for a review. We have been promised one year after year and, if the Government can still find time, the Opposition will be as co-operative as possible in dealing with issues that are extremely difficult, but which none the less need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

I would also be interested to hear the Secretary of State's view on the omission of the moratorium on genetic testing, which the Government talked about during the election and before. For them, however, the defining issue in terms of delivery of public services will perhaps be the involvement of the private sector. We need to move from the simple concept of public services to the concept of services provided to the public, and we must use whatever skills, expertise and capacity are available to improve services.

We have all read in the papers that there is a difference of opinion between No. 10 and the Department of Health about the speed at which those matters should move forward. No doubt the instant memoirs industry will tell us which version is correct, but it is important to improve the delivery of public services by using the private sector wherever possible. We have discussed the private finance initiative, and the quality of PFI contracts is determined by how well they are negotiated, but it is also extremely important that the Government are honest about their intentions.

I was with the former Minister of State for Health at the Royal College of Nursing conference when he again said that the Government's concordat is about NHS doctors and NHS nurses treating NHS patients in private facilities where there is excess capacity. That is an extraordinarily disingenuous view of what the concordat says. It refers to

In other words, it is possible entirely to bypass clinical provision in the NHS.

The Government should at least be honest about what they propose, because nothing could be worse in such a debate than them pretending to their own Back Benchers that they have agreed one thing when here we have, in black and white, something quite different. If they do not have the truth told, we will never be able to have an honest debate.

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I would like to hear the Secretary of State's view on a matter that is, perhaps, more important than any other. Over recent days, many of us will have read with alarm newspaper reports such as that in The Sunday Times money section entitled, "Labour scraps free nursing care pledge". What the Government proposed was explicit in the national plan and in their contributions to Committee debates, which the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) will remember. Section 15:18 of the national plan says:

Now we realise that all sorts of caveats will be placed on that and that people will be asked, according to some means test, to provide a part--greater or lesser, depending on where or in which part of the country they live--of their nursing care.

The report in The Sunday Times added:

There can be no room for confusion, however, and the Government's pledge was absolutely, totally, 100 per cent. clear. We supported them in Committee and in the House of Lords on the understanding that all nursing care would be fully funded and any backtracking on that will be regarded as the most brazen betrayal of elderly voters ever undertaken by any Government in a general election.

The Government won a clear victory in the general election, and there would be no point in going over in the coming months the arguments that we had before the election. They have a large parliamentary majority and a parliamentary programme, and what we legislate on is entirely in their hands for the next four years, but they have raised both expectations and questions about their intentions.

It is time for Ministers to give straight answers to the questions raised from both sides of the House during the debate, if we are to be able to believe that spin is out and delivery is in. For the meantime, the jury is most definitely out.

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