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8.17 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It would be invidious to mention all the hon. Members who have made excellent maiden speeches this evening. We have seen the capabilities of the new intake of Members of Parliament in the most remarkable way this evening, and I give credit to all of them--but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), whom I very much welcome to the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was absolutely right in saying that, to rural areas such as those which he and I represent, what matters in this Parliament

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is that the Government should start to deliver in the key areas of social policy. We have been waiting too long for them to do so. Education, health, policing, public transport and the public services on which we depend are also the key issues in other parts of the country.

Overlaying that is the crisis caused by foot and mouth disease, and we in Somerset feel much the same way as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). The world has looked aside and the media spotlight is elsewhere; they are no longer interested in foot and mouth. However, there happen to be cases in our area, and those outbreaks are just as important to our agriculture industry and our other businesses as were those in other parts of the country.

The caravan has moved on and we feel forgotten. That cannot be right, which is why the amendment tabled by the Conservative Opposition correctly says that it is remarkable that the Queen's Speech does not address the most pressing issues in rural areas: first, how to effect a recovery in our agriculture industry; and, secondly, and perhaps even more important, how to effect a recovery in all the other businesses that have been affected not only by foot and mouth but by the long-term slowdown in so many of our rural industries and the impact of that on the economy.

I am deeply disappointed that there is no legislation in the Queen's Speech to address that. Furthermore, there is no measure to put into effect the promises made in the rural White Paper and no intention to lead with a recovery plan that will put cash into businesses that desperately need it to put them back on the road to recovery.

It is a paradox of debates on the Gracious Speech that we often discuss not what is included but what has not been included. I have little problem with many Bills in the Queen's Speech and some address issues with which I have sympathy, but I do not find what I want in respect of the core areas of delivery and improved public services. The proposed education Bill is so far removed from the reality of what we need to improve education services in schools and university provision in Somerset as to be laughable.

I welcome the appointment of the new Secretary of State for Education and Skills. She and I have shared many Adjournment debates late in the night, talking about the problems of Somerset education, and she has always shown that she understands the issues. However, I have to tell her that a Bill that deals principally with 57 new varieties of school and labels that will categorise pupils and put them into the various educational establishments without improving any of them--they will be irrelevant in many rural areas, which have monopoly suppliers such as a single secondary school providing an option for an area--is not what we are looking for.

We are looking for reforms of local government finance, and we have been waiting for them for so long. We want a measure that will put right the gross inequities in standard spending assessments whereby a child in Somerset receives £1,500 a year less than a child in a leafy London suburb. That is what we want from the Government, but we do not have it. Yet again, we wait for those necessary reforms.

The system does not provide the new school buildings or the extra teachers that we need and it is making admission policies more difficult. Other hon. Members will know that policies that are intended to be good--

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I applaud them in terms of class sizes--mean that more pupils are unable to attend a school on their doorstep, so they have to travel a considerable distance to an alternative school.

In the health service, the systems are being messed about, there are no promises of real delivery in the acute services that we need and constituents of mine still have to wait 18 months to get into the Royal United in Bath or into Yeovil general hospital for a simple orthopaedic operation. That is not good enough, and the Government must start to deliver on their promises.

We must begin to address primary care issues. My general practitioners in Somerset are in desperate straits, wondering how on earth they will manage. They are being asked to do more and more with less and less, only to find that the bureaucracy is overwhelming them. That cannot be right either.

We desperately need to address issues of long-term care. Only last week, an elderly persons' home in a neighbouring constituency but on the border of mine, was closed, affecting many of my constituents. People rang my office in tears because their relatives were being told at a week's notice that the home was to close and that they would have to decamp we know not where. We must get long-term care right. We do not have the correct funding or structure to provide long-term nursing or personal care, and that should be a priority for the Government in this Session.

Hon. Members also mentioned housing. We have not got that right. I am still greatly concerned that overstretched social housing in rural areas cannot cope with the people who want to move because their living conditions are grossly unsuitable or their family circumstances have changed. They are stuck. The only way for them to put a roof over their head is to move far away from their friends and relatives--possibly to accommodation that might be unsuitable--simply because the housing stock does not provide what is needed.

Those are important issues. On an additional note, I am concerned about the need to reform this place to make it more relevant to our constituents' needs. That idea has pervaded all discussions about the Queen's Speech. People have talked about the Government holding Parliament in contempt. That has been the case at times, and it continues to be so. However, ways of remedying that lie in our hands as Members of the House. We, too, often hold the House in contempt. Members are often not here to listen to debates. Prima donnas waltz in to give their speeches and do not have the courtesy to wait for the next speech before going on to their next engagement. We have also failed to address the problems of Select Committees. We need to consider who serves on them and what powers they have.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is roaming wide of the debate.

Mr. Heath: If we want proper public services, as mentioned in the amendment, we need parliamentary structures that hold the Government to account to maintain them. We do not have those. Our structures lack the spontaneity to enable us to do that. We talk about things that are outside our control, but we often fail to

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talk about things that are under our control. We talk about the need to ratify treaties without appreciating the fact that that power is not within our grasp. The House can only deal with legislation that follows from a treaty obligation; the responsibility for ratification lies elsewhere.

The House has to take its responsibilities more seriously. We must make the Executive understand that, unless the House is seen as relevant and is able to hold them to account for providing the services that our constituents need, we are failing in our duties. The public will not respect the House for that and will show their displeasure in the ballot box, as they did at the general election.

8.27 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): South Derbyshire had eight foot and mouth cases earlier this year. Restrictions have only recently been lifted. Indeed, the footpath that runs across my property has only just opened to walkers. The outbreak had a profound impact on the rural economy and the life style in a large part of my constituency.

The outbreak clearly exposed the extremely poor preparation that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had in place to deal with such a disaster. It would not be reasonable to retort that it could hardly have predicted a disaster on that scale, because we had experienced foot and mouth before. Although a substantial report was written about the last outbreak, the Ministry was, sadly, unprepared for the process that lay ahead. It showed a poor initial grasp of the scale of the crisis and did not bring to bear all the resources that could have been available to control it early enough. Members of the Select Committee on Agriculture in the previous Parliament had the opportunity to question scientific advisers on the management of the disease and their advice about it. I was surprised at the time that elapsed before the key scientific minds who could forecast the path of the disease were engaged in the task.

There are clearly some substantial issues to address and I welcome the fact that there will be a full inquiry into the origins of the outbreak and its handling. I shall want to see what can be learned, and, to be fair, where the criticism should be directed.

One small silver lining was that my constituency received a visit from the Prime Minister. Three farmers in my area, the Archer family--there are Archer family farms in South Derbyshire as well as on the radio programme--the Salts and the Smiths, all had the opportunity to express their views about the way in which the disease had been handled. They complimented the Ministry on some aspects of its handling of the matter locally, as well as handing out some brickbats regarding delayed payments and later, after the outbreak, confusions that had arisen in relation to blood tests, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) referred. Such tests were a necessary part of clearing the disease from our area but were handled slowly, with several mistakes being made.

In many ways the exercise was a test of how public services work in extremis, which brings me to public services in general and how they may be improved--matters which are questioned in the Opposition's amendment. The focus of the Queen's Speech was correctly on the delivery of public service commitments,

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and that was the focus of the message given to me by my constituents in South Derbyshire during the election campaign. They expect to see more commitments and they expect them to be delivered more quickly. My task in this Parliament is essentially to help to ensure that that comes about.

Listening to the Queen's Speech and examining in more detail some of the tasks that lie ahead, I had some doubts about how easy some of those changes would be. With regard to NHS reforms, we must recognise that centrally set targets and government by directive have rightly been questioned as the correct way to deliver improvements. They have been shown to be inefficient and demotivating to key workers within that core service.

I regularly meet health service professionals who, while recognising the extra resources which they are starting to see reach front-line services, bitterly resent being told precisely how to spend money and being set targets which they do not regard as the most relevant for their area. We must allow greater discretion for quality services to be established in a local area on the basis of the judgment of local management.

Peeling away some of the layers of NHS management appears to be necessary, but we must recognise that the long drawn-out processes that usually follow understandably absorb far too much of the time and energy of many key managers. That means that the deconstruction of regional health authorities and the health authorities that currently continue to manage many of the financial issues in the health service, and the transfer of those tasks to primary care groups and then to primary care trusts, is a process that will naturally absorb a great deal of energy which perhaps could be devoted to improving public services rather more rapidly. One must also question whether transferring complex negotiations and the management of complex services to primary care trusts, which are, as yet, nascent bodies of limited experience in delivering such key decisions, is a task that will be achieved without significant error and delay.

We need robust processes that will transfer responsibilities rapidly, but we must also be aware that one of the goals is to make savings. Most of those working in the health service are cynical about the savings it is claimed can be made from the reduction of large bureaucracies.

My experience of working in the private sector for a large public company suggests that all large bureaucracies tend to behave like primitive organisms: when a limb is severed at one point, a replacement grows elsewhere in the organism, sometimes at rather greater cost and inefficiency. Flatter management, while a laudable goal, cannot be achieved painlessly or without extremely skilled management. Given that it does not appear that such experience can be found within many of the public service bodies and Ministries that will be managing the process, one has to voice some concern about that change.

We must re-engineer the way in which we deliver our services. Some useful innovations have already been made, for example, the ONE service in delivering benefits and employment support. However, many parts of our public services continue to operate within the confines of byzantine procedures. We have repeatedly failed to integrate the use of information technology into modern public service. When I visited a hospital just outside my area, I was shown software that was, it was claimed, on

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the leading edge; but five years ago in my own business, I would have regarded it as the most basic of database tools. That gives some measure of how slowly IT has been absorbed into a key public service. I noted the gentle reproof from our e-envoy regarding using high-level targets for public access to IT instead of focusing on the big issue of transforming key public services through the use of IT.

In education, while commending the development of specialist schools, I would argue that we need to strengthen networks between local schools. To give a local example, I cannot understand why in Swadlincote, a town in my constituency with three secondary comprehensives but only one sixth form, allowing competitive specialties would be harmful.

To return to the putative subject of today's debate--the establishment of the new Department--we must review the top management of our public service. The new Department must break the cracked mould of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: it will be alarming if the new adopts the culture and leadership of the old. Our rural economy needs new strategies based on markets, customers, quality and environment, not on the legacy of the previous Ministry.

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