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Chris Grayling: Could I take the hon. Gentleman back to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which praised this country for its pupils' educational achievement? I remind him that the pupils who were measured in that survey went through key stages 1 to 3 under the Conservative Government following the reforms that they made to the education system. Those results were a tribute to the achievements of pupils ensuing from the reforms. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the contribution that the Conservative party's education reforms made to raising the standard of achievement and delivering an excellent result in an international survey?

Mr. Foster: I am about to conclude my contribution, but I want to tell the hon. Gentleman that Worcester is a relatively prosperous city. We have relatively low unemployment and are classed as middle England, so much so that, in 1997, Worcester woman was seen as the archetypal person whose support had to be attracted if we were to win the general election. Does the hon. Gentleman expect five of 12 wards in the city to appear at the bottom of a league of 2,000 for educational achievement? The Conservatives should not be proud of that record; I am not proud of it, and I want it to improve.

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6.23 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate because, as has been demonstrated already, it has raised issues of enormous interest to both to the public and to the many dedicated people who work in the public services. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on his success in securing an Opposition debate on these matters and on his introductory speech.

The speeches so far have been of great interest. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) for his obvious dedication to education in his constituency—his knowledge of the subject clearly comes from past experience—and for the little spiky touch that he put in, just reminding Ministers that all is not entirely well yet. I was entranced by the presentation of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) of himself as a master of consensus; I never thought I would live to see the day. His description of our discussions on the funding of education in the final days of the Major Government was much more his line on consensus than that which he has been attempting to preach today. He may have had his tongue in his cheek, but he did not seem to elicit many consensual responses from Government Members.

I may do better, but I am not certain that I will, as I wish to begin by making some fairly hard points. I hope that today's debate will help Ministers to grasp a number of important facts. There has been more investment in public service during the life of this Labour Government and the previous one, elected in 1997. Investment is not as great or as new as Ministers would have us believe. Their hyping of that investment, their exaggerated claims—"24 hours to save the NHS" and "Education, education, education"—and their announcements and reannouncements of extra spending have been so blatant that the public have stopped listening and do not believe a word of what they say about improvements to public services. If I were in government, I would take careful note.

It would be nice if the Government began to accept responsibility for the fact that they are in government. Things that are happening now, especially in practice, must be considered their responsibility. I intend to describe some of those things. It is a little tiring for the public to hear Ministers continuing to try to visit deficiencies in the public services entirely on the legacy of previous Conservative Governments.

Mr. Rammell: Given that, during 18 years in government, the Conservative party constantly referred to the winter of discontent, is not the right hon. Lady's criticism a bit rich?

Mrs. Shephard: That is a rather off-the-wall intervention, but it gives me the opportunity to remind the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that today's debate is about the record of his Government and what they have done. No Opposition Member will make any apology for drawing attention to those matters.

I hope that Ministers will note that announcing extra resources, while at the same time making complicated announcements about earmarking and ring-fencing those same resources, apparently with no idea of how contradictory policies will impact on one another,

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is rapidly becoming a discredited exercise. The public's daily experience, particularly in rural areas, of those same public services, is so far removed from ministerial hyperbole that the Government should stop describing what is happening and try sampling it instead.

As I said, more money has indeed been allocated to public services. However, little effort seems to have been devoted to making sure that services work: to ensuring that behind the flattering headlines there are genuine improvements that people experience daily and that policy intentions announced in one area do not cancel out improvements in another—in short, to ensuring that resource allocation is underpinned by practical and workable strategic thinking. Consequently, every time the public hear yet another hyped announcement, they say, "Where is the money going? We can't see the benefits for us." That is a relevant question for the public to ask, because it is their money.

Mr. Dawson: The right hon. Lady properly acknowledged that more money had been spent on the public services, but criticised Labour Members for hyperbole. Is she seriously suggesting that her constituents have not received any of the benefits of that extra public spending? Will she tell us what new public sector resources are available in her constituency?

Mrs. Shephard: I shall most happily do so. Indeed, I shall be devoting my entire speech to that matter, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to stay and listen.

In short, there is a mismatch between Ministers' claims and people's daily experience, and that is what I intend to demonstrate. Understandably, this debate has been majoring on the shortcomings of the national health service. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I intend to make some observations about the way in which it is working in my own rural area. However, local people are as concerned about teacher shortages, lack of school places and police funding as they are about the health service.

Ministers' pronouncements on those matters give no indication that they have the remotest idea of what it is like to try to access public services in a rural area. Travelling from the village where I live to the nearest GP's surgery means making a round trip of 15 miles. Ministers say that they understand. Indeed, they produced a rural White Paper and countless quangos to try to demonstrate their understanding, but sadly, their policies still show no sign of demonstrating in practice that the lesson has gone home. The point is that rural sparsity has implications for the delivery of all public services. That is the case whether we are talking about the NHS, schools or the police.

Dr. Stoate: I agree that there are difficulties with GP practices in rural areas. The right hon. Lady said that some of her constituents had to travel seven miles to a GP's surgery. What does her party suggest that we should do about that? The Government are increasing the number of GPs and investing in the modernisation of their surgeries. We are even investing in improved public transport links. What would her party offer that this Government are somehow failing to achieve?

Mrs. Shephard: It is, of course, under this Government that the cost of motoring—the only alternative that is open

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to many of my constituents—has risen sky high. I ask the hon. Gentleman to remember that and to bear in mind the fact that, as I said, we are talking about the achievements of his Government.

Mr. Dawson: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Shephard: No, not at the moment. I have given way a number of times and I shall certainly return to that point.

Ministers should be congratulated—this is a consensus point that I draw to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe—on embracing the PFI principle, on the basis of which all £229 million worth of the Norfolk and Norwich hospital is being provided. It is a good Conservative principle. It has certainly delivered the hospital in good time and people in Norfolk would be delighted about it, were it not for the implications of the accelerated opening of the hospital. Its opening has been brought forward from March to now and has been marked by local press headlines such as "Disaster looms" and "Crisis talks over hospital beds shortage". I accept that some of those problems result from a combination of severe winter weather and staff illness, but it would be interesting to know why the opening has been brought forward from its scheduled time in March. Has that happened because of the requirements of the PFI contractors? If so, it might have been better for health managers—I assume that that must include Ministers—to avoid the problems of winter and illness, and keep to the timetable.

It is a disappointment and a pity that the memory of Norfolk people of the opening of the hospital—after all, it was conceived and planned under the Conservative Government—will be accompanied by memories of the huge problems associated with the shortening of the timetable. Norfolk people are also asking whether the hospital will be adequate for Norfolk's needs. Access is one of their main concerns. I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) take his place; he is right on cue. Ministers should be concerned, like the people of Norfolk, that only one access point to the new Norfolk and Norwich hospital has been planned. When the Minister visited Norfolk to celebrate the beginning of dualling on the A11 in my constituency—he was very welcome—I asked his officials to drive him past the site of the new hospital, so that he would be able to see for himself the problems of accessing it through a residential and suburban area. Activity is now under way on that front and I think that we are getting help from the Highways Agency, but to the people of Norfolk, it seems a bit wasteful to spend £229 million on a hospital that one cannot get to in a rush hour, especially because by definition in a rural area, easy vehicular access is an absolute requirement.

The new hospital is one thing, but the knock-on effects of its provision are quite another. It would be interesting to know whether the hon. Member for Worcester, who described provision with regard to the new hospital in his constituency, is experiencing any of the same problems. The Wayland hospital, which is situated near Attleborough in my constituency, is to be sacrificed to help provide funding for the new hospital. This much-loved hospital, with its 70-plus beds and strong

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local support, is to close in April, despite the fact that its closure will mean that there is no community hospital provision in the whole of the southern half of the county of Norfolk. People will be expected to undertake a round trip of 60 miles to Norwich for community hospital care. In response to the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), I point out that that is not a policy that was born of a former Conservative Government. We wished to retain the hospital precisely because of the travel implications of its closure.

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