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7.22 pm

Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I appreciate being able to address the House before we adjourn for Christmas, because my constituents feel most strongly about a number of issues.

I live in a part of the country that will increasingly have to face private affluence amid public squalor. Since the Government have been in power, they have consistently made spending announcements and then demand—indeed, dictate—unrealistic outcomes from ever constrained resources. One example is the police. The recent settlement for the police meant that although formally they had an increase of 2.3 per cent., it was a 2.6 per cent. fall in real terms. The costs of police pay are going up by 3 per cent. and pensions by 18 per cent. To achieve that, they are given a 2.3 per cent. increase.

The costs in areas such as mine are high, and the police do not benefit from London weighting, so the Metropolitan police force acts as competition. In Surrey, the benefits of London weighting are not reflected in police pay packets, but the costs are still enormous. Constituencies such as mine, which contain rural areas as well as market towns, face additional burdens. For that reason, I co-chair the town and country finance issues group, an association of about 80 constituency Members of Parliament who try to advance their case.

The House will be surprised and shocked to learn that one of the steps that the Surrey police force has taken to attract and retain constables is to provide health care for them. Do any other police forces take the view that the NHS is in such an appalling state that the only way to retain and attract police officers is to provide private health cover?

I have repeatedly addressed the House about what has happened since the Government came to power to create far greater inequalities in health services than ever they inherited. At present, in my area, one person in nine waits for more than a year for in-patient treatment. In the Prime Minister's constituency, that figure is less than one in 100. Year on year, the Government have squeezed the funding in the south-east, quite inappropriately in the light of the appalling cost of living and the difficulty of attracting and retaining public service workers. The Government's response to public service workers is to name and shame.

Today has seen the publication of the National Audit Office report on hospital waiting lists. I know, perhaps as well as anybody in the House, that NHS managers are

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dedicated public servants who believe in the ethos and values of the NHS. People rarely thank them. I took note of the references that the Prime Minister made to NHS managers in the 18 months before 1997, and in the year following his election. He only ever referred to them as bureaucrats, and in an insulting manner, until, as a result of a number of parliamentary questions, I am pleased to say that he modified his language.

The question that arises from today's report is why so many NHS managers feel so alienated from the leadership of the NHS and driven to such lengths that they will compromise the values that I know they hold. It is because of the political overload and the political imperatives forced on the health service, as in many other public services. Too little value is put on the people who work in the service, and there is too much spin, too many trivial initiatives and constant soundbites.

I would like the Government to take one practical step and admit that they were wrong, and that there should be an independent chief executive of the NHS. They should restore the role of the permanent secretary, who is accountable to Ministers, takes forward the Whitehall battles, sorts out visiting incoming Health Ministers and special advisers who abuse the conventions, and takes responsibility for honours. The permanent secretary could deal with all manner of Whitehall and Westminster matters and allow the chief executive to have the independence and credibility with NHS staff to take forward devolution of the service, instead of centralisation.

It would be hard to exaggerate the despair felt in the health service in my part of the world. The waiting times are appalling; the accident and emergency departments are groaning. Week by week, I receive letters to which the only reply I feel I can give is, "Can you go privately?" When I learned that Surrey police force had taken the decision to provide private health cover for its staff, that made me think that it knew what was happening. It cannot attract and retain staff otherwise; it does not have the confidence in the NHS that I would want it to have.

Before finishing, I shall provide two pieces of positive information. First and foremost, I am delighted that work on Farnham's community hospital has begun. Farnham, Milford and Haslemere were all under threat. A vigorous local campaign has seen them safeguarded. I pay particular tribute to Sir Ray Tindle, the proprietor of the Farnham Herald and other local newspapers for a constructive, energetic and determined contribution to the campaign. Again, the squeeze on social service and health funding in Surrey, along with the cost of living, has meant that nursing and residential homes have been closing, under huge pressure.

The Government must listen to Cheshire Homes, the biggest providers of independent care in the country, the Meath residential homes—another charitable foundation—and Methodist Homes for the Aged. They organise institutions and care for the frail and vulnerable and cannot cope with the insoluble formula with which they are presented. There are ever greater demands and requirements with regard to the standard of care, the criteria and the outcomes, with ever reduced means available. Nevertheless, I shall go round all those

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community hospitals within the next couple of days and speak with delight about their future, and about the real dedication and commitment of the staff.

I also appreciate the real commitment on the A3 at Hindhead. That is the only single carriageway on the A3 between London and Portsmouth, and contains the first traffic lights that a Scottish Minister would meet on the road between Scotland and Portsmouth, one of our busiest ports. That commitment will unlock the economic development of the south-east, the Portsmouth area and the Isle of Wight, and above all, it will safeguard an especially valuable and important piece of countryside.

In my area, there is real concern that unless the Government think again about our needs and are fairer to a part of the country where a massive amount of tax is raised for the Chancellor, there will be greater disillusion, and the all-party commitment to our welfare state and our welfare services will be jeopardised. The local government settlement, while promising an increase of 2.3 per cent. to all, in fact came through as a real cut for my area. I am pleased that, after the outcry that resulted, the Secretary of State announced that he would maintain his commitment to a 2.3 per cent. increase, but I regret that the increase in local government spending next year will be 7.4 per cent.—not 2.3 per cent. The recycling requirements, the homelessness requirements and the many other burdens on, and expectations from, local government mean that once again, the ends are being demanded but the means are not being delivered.

The situation in south-west Surrey is extremely serious and I ask the Government, please, to listen to our concerns and ensure that—every so often—a Minister visits our area. I spent nine years of my life visiting Leeds, Sheffield, Darlington, Birmingham, Manchester, Halifax and Plymouth. Before I became a Minister I did not know the United Kingdom, but in nine years I spent lots of time visiting every part of the country—whether or not it was represented by a Member of Parliament of my persuasion.

The fact that the Government are highly partisan concerns me deeply. They do not take their responsibilities to the entire country as seriously as they should. When the outcomes—especially in health care—are as appalling as they are in Surrey, the Secretary of State should visit. It is now four and a half years since the Government came to power, but during that time, no senior Minister has visited south-west Surrey.

7.32 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): As we approach the festive season, with twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, Christmas cards and present wrapping, I shall raise the seasonal issue of fireworks—specifically, their irresponsible and prolonged misuse.

At the end of October and the beginning of November, my local paper was inundated with hundreds of letters of complaint about the misuse of fireworks—as was I. As a result of those complaints, the Grimsby Telegraph launched a campaign for tougher laws on the sale of fireworks. The response was astonishing: more than 1,100 people backed the campaign, while only one person supported the status quo.

I have given the campaign my full backing because people endure months of misery caused by fireworks. I do not know what happens in the constituencies of other hon. Members, but it seems that in north-east Lincolnshire

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the firework season starts at the beginning of August. That is when the noise begins. As soon as the back-to-school posters go up in Woolworths and other stores, the fireworks are set off.

That shows that the voluntary code of practice on the restriction of sales to three weeks before and one week after 5 November is not working. There is an increasing use of fireworks. Christmas is coming up, so we shall see lots of fireworks. We have them at birthdays, weddings, parties and the celebrations of many of our ethnic communities, such as Diwali and other festivals. Many more fireworks are being used, thus causing more disturbance to many people.

Although the voluntary code restricts the sale of fireworks to the period around 5 November, few people realise that fireworks can also go on sale at this time of year—from the beginning of December and into January. People in my constituency and elsewhere are dreading another outbreak of explosive mayhem at Christmas and the new year.

Many elderly people have been writing to me and to the local paper to complain about fireworks. A war veteran told me that the war was quieter than the months of October and November in Lincolnshire. I am not of a sensitive nature, but, boy, the noise is atrocious. I have received complaints from people who run care homes and residential homes for the elderly, and from mums with young children and babies. Every time there is an explosion the babies start crying again, so the mothers get more and more fractious as the children get more upset.

The noise affects people who are seriously ill or recovering from illness; it affects shift workers and people with pets. Some of the people who got in touch with me have guide dogs. We forget that guide dogs are particularly sensitive to noise, so fireworks can actually disrupt the way in which they work. That is a danger for people who are blind.

The problem is not only one of noise. Increased criminal damage is associated with the misuse of fireworks. Every year there are reports of phone boxes being damaged by fireworks. People play tricks by putting fireworks into car exhausts and letter boxes. Fireworks are thrown at pedestrians, drivers and cyclists. They are thrown at people's windows and doors. There is also cruelty to animals, including tying fireworks to family pets that happen to get in the way of the louts who misuse fireworks—as happens in my constituency. There is a culture of fear and we must tackle it.

I love organised displays and I certainly want them to continue, but it is time to toughen up the voluntary code. A few years ago, I was burgled in early November, and noise was a factor. The dogs next door normally bark when someone they do not know walks down the street, but because of the noise of the fireworks they were barking anyway. The police told me that there is an increase in burglary at that time of year because deterrents such as barking dogs are not as effective as usual. Incidentally, the cats climbed up my new drapes and shredded them, but that is not as important as the fact that people are burgled at a time of year when criminals can use noise to disguise their activities.

The firework safety regulations of 1997 state that sales should be restricted to people "apparently" over 18, but there is no requirement to show proof of age. Certain categories of firework can be sold to people as young as

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16. Average 16-year-olds have many restrictions on their lives. They are not allowed to vote, to buy drinks in pubs—although we all know that plenty of them do—or to drive cars, and in England, they cannot get married without parental consent. Yet we allow them access to explosives. That is unacceptable.

Yes, there are penalties for selling fireworks to people under 18. There are also penalties for discharging and throwing fireworks in the street, but how many prosecutions are there for such offences every year? They are few and far between. The code is not working. We must toughen it up because loutish elements misuse fireworks, causing much disturbance and a culture of fear—especially among the groups that I mentioned.

Early in the new year, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) is to bring in a ten-minute Bill on the subject, so I am flagging up the matter now to give the Government ample time, before the Bill is introduced, to tighten up the regulations so that, I hope, 5 November in 2002 and subsequent years will not be as noisy as before, and people can enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.

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