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7.53 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): I should like to thank the Opposition for giving us the opportunity to debate public services. It is hardly their strongest suit, but they get to choose the subjects for Opposition day debates.

I shall concentrate on three themes. I want to highlight what has been achieved in my constituency, to give my personal and very unspun account of my experience with public service issues, and to examine the Conservative party's lamentable failures, both in terms of performance and in terms of winning the political and ideological arguments.

By way of introduction, it is worth saying that public services are a new concept for most Thatcherite Members of Parliament, whereas most Labour Members have practical experience of them. We have either worked in or delivered public services, as exemplified by the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate). He spoke with authority, and commanded the House's attention.

My record is more humble. I spent two years as the co-ordinator at the Reading centre for the unemployed. That centre, funded by Berkshire county council until it was axed by the Conservatives, provided welfare rights, advice and education, and training opportunities for unemployed people in my town.

I spent nine years as a regional manager for a tenant-controlled housing association that delivered affordable homes and empowered tenants with a genuine say over the delivery of their housing. That is hardly a leftist, centralising agenda. In fact, I remind hon.

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Members that the principle of co-operative ownership is at the heart of the socialist movement and of the work in the 1830s of Robert Owen and the co-operative movement.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Salter: No Conservative Member would give way to me, and I fully intend to return the compliment until a later point in my speech—which, I assure the hon. Gentleman, will be considerably shorter than the 35 minutes of tedium to which we have had to listen from some Opposition Members.

I also spent 12 years on Reading borough council, nine of them as deputy leader. I am proud that, even in the dark days of Thatcherism, we in Reading always put public services first. We have never been frightened to say to people that they cannot get owt for nowt. We have made it clear that people must pay and that, if they want a top-quality service, it will cost.

As the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) will know, council tax levels in Reading are substantially higher than in neighbouring authorities. However, it is worth looking at the Labour council's electoral record. The right hon. Gentleman can only envy the record of the Labour party in comparison with his, in our respective bastions of power.

Since 1983, Reading Labour party has not lost a single council seat. It took control of the council against the swing in 1987, and has won seat after seat since. A solid Conservative authority that had swept to power on a promise that it would cut rates was swept out of power after it cut public services. The Conservative rump now consists of three councillors, who are in opposition to 36 Labour councillors.

My first message to my Front-Bench colleagues is to be bold and to stand up for public services. They must be honest with the public, as people will pay if they think that they are getting value for money and that the council or the public service provider is in touch with them and their aspirations.

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Salter: I shall take one intervention from a Labour Member, and I am more than happy to give way to my hon. Friend.

David Taylor: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, but does he not think that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) was right in one respect at least? He has suggested that there is no automatic link between inputs and outputs, and that we should decouple resources from quality. Newspaper articles earlier this week showed that, despite the extra investment and costs associated with private education, the results achieved represented especially poor value for money. Is not that something that we should bear in mind?

Mr. Salter: I thank my hon. Friend, but I remind him that I have been present for the whole debate. By the time the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden reached

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that point, I had lost the will to live. I am afraid that I am not able to comment coherently on whether what the right hon. Gentleman said was right or wrong.

I turn now to public services in my constituency and in Reading as a whole. As I have said, standing up for public services is nothing new for us in Reading. However, it will not hurt to take a quick look at the state of public services in my constituency, especially in connection with health, education, crime and transport.

Berkshire health authority has been allocated £528 million in the current financial year. That compares with a funding settlement in 1996–97, the final year of the previous Government, of just £278 million. There have been radical improvements in health service funding. Waiting lists now stand at 14,435, as against 17,452 in March 1998.

I agree that that does not tell the whole story, and that there is a debate to be had about waiting lists versus waiting times, but those are measurable improvements. I am perhaps more proud that despite the high cost of living in Berkshire, the health authority has 60 more qualified nurses than it had in 1997.

We are spending an extra £540 per pupil, compared with 1996–1997. The number of five, six and seven-year-olds in Reading, West in classes numbering more than 30 pupils fell from 636 in 1998 to 62 by January 2001. Eleven-year-olds have achieved record primary school results. Conservative Members did not seek to condemn the Government's education achievements. The feeling that I get on the streets and in my constituency surgery is that although there may be a long way to go in health and transport, the public recognise and appreciate the tangible improvements in the delivery of education policy.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way now?

Mr. Salter: No, not yet. The hon. Gentleman must be patient. His time will come.

There has been a fall in recorded crime in the Thames Valley, although a worrying increase in violent crime. At long last, we have started to turn the corner on police numbers. I will return to defects in current Government thinking on crime.

Reading has seen the opening of the long-awaited A33 relief road—a capital project that stalled for years under successive Governments of different political persuasions. We are proud of providing free pensioner bus passes, which sets Reading apart from other authorities in the area. There has been record investment in road maintenance and the introduction of a popular night bus service. Real improvements have been made in my constituency and it would be wrong to contribute to a public services debate without highlighting them.

Since 1997, there have been significant increases in major capital programmes. I noticed the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer about the future of a Worcester hospital. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) will remember the incessant delays in refurbishing the Royal Berkshire hospital. That project was on hold for nine years. One of the first decisions by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on becoming

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Secretary of State was to release £71 million of direct public funding. Ministers were non-ideological enough to recognise that in that instance, the private finance initiative did not stack up and they delivered for the people of Reading in a way that the previous Government had not.

Private finance has worked—in particular for greenfield sites. While some of us are ambivalent about the wonders of the private sector—I wish that my right hon. the Secretary of State for Health would not smirk at me—I give my full support and backing to the PFI when it delivers a new psychiatric hospital on a greenfield site in my constituency, replacing the disgraceful, crumbling, Victorian facilities at the Fairmile asylum on the outskirts of Reading. If PFI works, more power to its elbow—but where it does not, direct public funding must be delivered.

I am pleased to see in his place the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead). As he is my office mate, that makes it easier to say that Reading needs funding for a third Thames bridge. I am sick and tired of operating in a town in which people wanting to travel from north to south to join the M4 have to drive through the centre of the capital of the Thames Valley. If someone wants to drive from Oxford to join the M4, they have to go through our town centre or rat-run through the picturesque village of Sonning to cross a single-track bridge—purely because we have been unable to break the deadlock between Berkshire and Oxfordshire councils. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is making copious notes and that a third Thames bridge will be a shopping list priority in the comprehensive spending review.

We have won election after election in my town using the slogan, "You're better off with Labour". With economic prosperity, record low levels of unemployment, high wages, fantastic job opportunities and quality public services, that slogan has some resonance.

I am not attempting to be consensual but in the spirit of the contributions by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and others, I intend to be frank. I spent some instructive time on the parliamentary police scheme, which I commend to other right hon. and hon. Members. It taught me that the police service is in urgent need of radical reform. It must be the last public service in the country that still uses carbon-paper forms. I cannot believe that police officers work in an environment that can take them out of circulation for five hours to process a simple arrest. In these days of laptop computers and Psion organisers, police officers should be able to make an arrest, file the information down the line electronically and move on to the next job. Police reform is vital.

Every Home Secretary in recent times has the scars on his back. Conservative Home Secretaries will remember the problems of trying to implement Sheehy and ending up implementing the worst parts of that report. At long last, we have a Home Secretary who is prepared to take on vested interests. I am confident that he will get support from all parts of the House.

In my region, the cost of a two-up, two-down terraced house built for a railway worker or a factory hand at Huntley and Palmer costs between £120,000 and £140,000—£50,000 or £60,000 beyond the reach of a newly qualified police officer. A cost-of-living allowance

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is vital. London Weighting has had its day. I was working at Heathrow airport in 1979 and moved to Reading because, believe it or not, it was a cheap place to buy a house. Now it is one of the most expensive. The same logic that introduced a £6,000 cost-of-living housing supplement for Metropolitan police officers should be applied to other hot spots of high housing costs throughout the country. Areas of Cheshire, Bath and other parts of the country fall into the same category.

I was disappointed at police reaction to the wholly sensible notion of street wardens. The Police Federation—perhaps the last redoubt of unreconstructed trade unionism, and I know a little about that—described street wardens as policing on the cheap. What absolute nonsense. How many police officers object to performing functions for which they are ill equipped by their training and which could easily be undertaken by active citizens? If street wardens are policing on the cheap, cannot the same be said of the neighbourhood watch CID? The police cannot have it all ways. I sense a mood change, with progressive elements coming to the fore in the police service. My message to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and other Front-Bench colleagues is that they should keep up the battle against the forces of conservatism because until they are defeated, public services can never be reformed.

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