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9.4 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a small contribution to this debate. Indeed, I am grateful to the Opposition for tabling the motion, because it gives me a chance to focus on a public service that has been a huge success story in my constituency: the police service. Incidentally, Opposition Members have hardly mentioned that important public service during this long debate. I believe that that is because of its success in the past four and a half years.

Given that I have had the dubious honour of listening to most of the speeches made by Opposition Members on their chosen topic, I shall make a couple of observations about them before going on to the constituency issue that I wish to raise.

I cannot ignore the unsolicited references by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) to my constituency and the Vale of Glamorgan by-election, not once or twice but, as Hansard will confirm, six times.

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That convinces me that it must be haunting him—and so it should. I remind the House that that by-election in 1989 was based on the state of one of our most important public services, the health service, all that time ago when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was pushing through the Tory health reforms.

I am eternally grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for my getting elected in that by-election. Had it not been for his personal intervention, I would not have been elected. I thank him for the fact that I have won every election—I have had the majority vote from my electors in every election—since 1989, which is in part due to his intervention. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) shouts from a sedentary position that I lost in 1992. Let me tell him that my electors elected me in that election. It was 64 South Africans who made the difference in the fiddled election system that the Tories introduced in the meantime. [Interruption.] Ask them to check the record, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is a pity that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe is no longer in his place. In his speech, he said that the Tories lost the 1989 by-election because there was a conspiracy between the Labour party and the British Medical Association to fight the election under the false claim that the Tories intended to privatise the health service and to introduce charges. He may believe in conspiracy theories, but I do not and he is wrong to think that there was one then.

The doctors acted entirely independently. They put forward a GP candidate and fought the election on the argument that the Tories intended to privatise the health service. I do not believe that that was the right hon. and learned Gentleman's intention. Nor do I believe that there was at that time a specific proposal to introduce charging, but it unravels the argument put forward in the Conservative motion today. The truth is that the Tories do not support the national health service or public services. The motion makes no reference whatever to support for, or commitment to, the public services, or to enhancing or strengthening them.

Chris Grayling: I wonder whether I could pose a question to the hon. Gentleman. If it is the case that the Conservative party has no interest in the public services and in the national health service, and that the Labour party has that interest, how can it be that the chairman of the Labour party recently admitted that the state of the health service in many ways is worse than it was under the Conservatives?

Mr. Smith: That has nothing to do with the mood music of the parties today. There has been a week or two of bad publicity regarding public services, so the Tories have jumped on the bandwagon and tabled a motion for an Opposition-day debate on public services. That is very brave of them, but no one in the country believes that they have any commitment whatever to the public services. If they do not believe me, they should look at the opinion polls in today's newspapers, which show that despite the difficulties in recent weeks, despite Captain Mainwaring,

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the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, jumping on the bandwagon and all of a sudden coming out in favour of public services, no one in the country believes them.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): The Leader of the Opposition was a public servant a long time ago and a member of Her Majesty's armed forces, so he is hardly jumping on a bandwagon.

Mr. Smith: Absolutely. That is why it is amazing that that other great public service has literally not been mentioned until now by the Conservative party. The reason is—the hon. Gentleman may not be aware of it—that the Conservative party does not support public services or the public ethos. It believes that public service is a necessary evil that has to be provided because the private sector either cannot or is unwilling to provide it. The public services will never be safe in Tory hands.

The Tories have got on the public service bandwagon this week. The other week, we had another beauty: they came out in favour of reforming the second Chamber to have 80 per cent. elected peers, whereas 12 months or a little longer ago they did not even support the abolition of hereditary peers. The good captain in charge has panicked. He has literally been non-existent on the political scene for the past six months and he is picking up each bandwagon as it comes along.

As today's opinion polls show, the Tories will not win the argument and they will not win support, despite the order from the good captain, "Don't mention the euro." John Cleese in "Fawlty Towers" said not to mention something else, but that is the line in the Tory party: do not mention the euro, pretend we support public services and say anything we possibly can to get on the next bandwagon.

Chris Grayling: Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that week by week we as individual Members of Parliament receive either letters or visits in our surgeries from people who are suffering as a result of the failures of his party to deliver improvements in public services? How can he say that it is us who have no interest in this area, when it is palpably his party that is presiding over a situation that is getting worse, not better?

Mr. Smith: Because the Conservative party had 18 years in charge of the public services and they ran them down to an appalling level during that period. There was no transport plan for nearly 20 years. Hospitals were closed. There was a reduction in the number of beds, nurses and doctors. That happened not because the Tories wanted to take health care away from the British people, but because of their ideological belief that the private sector is always best. They believed that if a gap were created in health care services it would automatically be filled by their friends in the private sector. Of course, that did not happen.

Andrew Selous: Like several of his colleagues, the hon. Gentleman seems to be keen to give us a history lesson, but will he remember that it was his party which was unable to fulfil its hospital building programme and

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to fund nurses' pay when they were in power in a previous Administration? If we are going to look at history, perhaps we should look at it fairly on both counts.

Mr. Smith: I am happy to make historical comparisons, particularly this one. In the last few years, the country has seen the biggest hospital building programme that it has seen for decades, and a greater increase in nursing recruitment than it has seen for a long time. According to an answer given in Health questions this afternoon, 10,000 were recruited last year. Yes, I am happy to make comparisons showing the record of a Labour Government who are committed to the public service ethos—who believe in public services, considering them to provide not just the best but the fairest way of ensuring that the many benefit, not just a few who can pay.

That is not just my view, but the view of the British people. It will not be changed by a couple of policy pronouncements that have been made in the last couple of weeks, or by a motion that does not even state that the Opposition support public services.

Much has been said today about some of the Government's difficulties in providing services. It should be recognised that the climate in which they are being provided now is very different from the climate under the Tories. We now have a successful and growing economy. We have the lowest unemployment for more than 25 years, taking into account regional variations, and we have growth rates that have not been enjoyed for a long time. We have the lowest inflation for nearly 40 years. That successful economy is the backdrop to the current situation.

One consequence is that the problems we now face in delivering public services are very different from those experienced during the 18 disastrous years of Tory provision. Of course it can be difficult to recruit nurses and teachers, because competition in the labour market is 10 times greater than it was during that disastrous Tory period. That means that we must be more innovative, and introduce new policies to overcome the problems.

I want to draw Ministers' attention to the arbitrary tests imposed on new nursing recruits. I have reason to believe that they do not necessarily reflect the ability and aptitude of potential recruits. I understand that many young women, in particular, want to move to the profession from managerial and other backgrounds, but cannot surmount that initial hurdle. The same applies to teachers. We are offering incentives for teacher training, but it seems that potential recruits are being put off. I think we should examine the standard of access to teaching and postgraduate certificate of education courses.

The main issue that I want to raise is the success of the police service in my constituency. We can, I think, be very proud of the Government's record in regard to the tackling of crime. In the past four years, we have reduced crime by 22 per cent. In my constituency, there has been a 33 per cent. reduction in recorded crime in the past five years alone. There were 15,000 recorded incidents in 1996, but the latest crime survey figures show that the number fell to 10,000 last year. That is a fantastic achievement by the police and their partners in my constituency.

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That would be a wonderful achievement in its own right, but 10 years ago the crime rate in my constituency, and in the town of Barry there, was the highest per capita among all comparable communities in the UK.

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