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5.26 pm

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I was fascinated by the fact that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) opened the debate by seeking consensus but subsequently reverted to the Tory knee-jerk response.

We need consensus on the key issues that determine the quality of life in London and the south-east. For my constituents in Harlow, and, I believe, elsewhere throughout London and the south-east, such issues are whether people have a job, whether they have enough income to keep them out of poverty, whether they have a roof over their head, whether they feel confident sending their children to the local school and whether they feel that their local hospital is improving.

I am not one of those party politicians who says that everything is perfect under my Government and everything was disastrous under the last lot, but if we examine the evidence on those key criteria, it is clear that things are significantly better, or at least moving in the right direction, compared to the situation four and a half or five years ago. I shall highlight some of the aspects where I believe that to be the case.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government spoke about unemployment and what has happened over the past four and a half years. My constituents still remember Norman Lamont singing in the bath and speaking about unemployment being a price worth paying, and the economic philosophy whereby if a measure was not hurting, it was not working. We saw the results of that. In my constituency in 1983, under the last Conservative Government, unemployment rose to 4,700. In 1993, it got as high as 5,200. In all those 18 years, unemployment was never lower than 1,500, yet in September last year, it was as low as 978, and it is only marginally above that figure now. For the thousands of my constituents who had their lives blighted by unemployment, that was a huge improvement in the quality of their life.

To get to first base in terms of a decent standard and quality of life, people need a roof over their head. Thousands of my constituents experienced negative equity or housing repossessions in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of the Conservative mismanagement of the economy. They will be incredulous or angry beyond words to hear the Conservatives now speaking about quality of life.

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We need to remind ourselves how serious and pernicious the situation was. At one stage in the early 1990s, 1.8 million households in Britain were experiencing negative equity, and 1 million of those were in London, the south-east and the eastern region. That had a devastating effect on people's quality of life, their confidence, their security and their ability to plan their lives.

A decent quality of life also means having a local state school to which people feel confident about sending their children. On that criterion, parents are in a much better position—even if it is not perfect—than they were four and a half years ago. Despite what the Conservative party says, with some support from the Liberal Democrats, school funding has increased considerably since the Conservative years, especially on school building: building, repairs, maintenance and renovation have tripled. Every time I visit a school in my constituency, I am told about a new science block, classroom or playground—the reality of that increased investment.

Mrs. Laing: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but is it not even more important that there are enough teachers to do the job that must be done in the schools to which he refers? Schools in his constituency and mine do not have enough teachers, and the main reason for the shortage is that the Government have not funded them.

Mr. Rammell: The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point in an absurd way. There are pressures on recruitment in my constituency and hers and elsewhere in the south-east, but they must be put into context: we have more teachers in schools today than at any time since 1984. One of the reasons for the excess of demand over supply is that the Government are putting more money into revenue budgets for schools, which means that they can employ more teachers. The issue is difficult and we need to think it through carefully and face up to it. It must be recognised that the Conservative party's simplistic claims that the pressure on demand is due to the policies of this Government do not bear any scrutiny.

It is not only on the funding front that improvements are being made in our schools. The focused strategy of target setting and monitoring, as well as the literacy and numeracy strategy, have ensured an attainment increase of almost 50 per cent. among 11-year-olds in four and a half years. Parents in my constituency and elsewhere in the south-east value that significant advance very much indeed. Furthermore, at long last the national health service is increasing its capacity to deliver health improvements, in contrast with the reductions in capacity that occurred under the Conservatives.

Mr. Burns: Does the hon. Gentleman remember attending the 1999 Labour party conference, at which the Prime Minister promised the country that under Labour everybody would have access to an NHS dentist within two years? Will he please explain the written answer given by Health Ministers last week, showing that 49 per cent. of children in London were registered with an NHS dentist in March 1997, while the latest figure for this year is 37 per cent?

Mr. Rammell: As I said, I do not claim that everything is perfect in terms of taking forward the improvements

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that we need in our key public services. When I talk to my constituents, I see that they have frustrations and concerns about the pace of change and the improvements that the Government are taking forward, but they know in their bones that the investment is now being made and the change is being delivered in a way that was not even considered during the 18 years that the Conservative party was in power.

Let me focus on the health service from a constituency perspective. In Harlow, £1 million has recently been allocated for the modernisation of our maternity unit, which is the same today as when my 12-year-old son was born in it. That shows the scale of the lack of investment in the past, whereas £1 million has now been allocated. We also have a new GP walk-in centre, providing access to a GP or a nursing service when the patient wants it—a development that is hugely popular with my constituents. Whatever the Conservative party says about funding, the North Essex health authority has had a 10.5 per cent. increase this year—a substantial increase in anybody's book. We need that funding to be sustained, as is now happening under this Government.

We need a debate on the national health service that is based on facts, not spin. I say that to all politicians in all parties. One of the key claims that the Government have rightly made concerns the need to increase nursing numbers and the reality of making that happen. Since 1997—I have obtained these figures not from the Government, but from the Library—the total number of nursing, midwifery and health-visiting staff has increased by some 28,000. That is a point that we need to force home.

I was watching the television at the weekend, and saw an advert for The Mail on Sunday, advertising one of its weekly stories on the alleged crisis in the national health service. I do not know whether hon. Members saw it, but at the end of the advert there was a picture of a hospital bed with a graph at the end of it entitled "Nursing numbers", with a bar chart showing the figure going down. That is a complete and utter lie. It is Conservative party spin. The Labour Government have been accused of spinning on these issues, but our opponents must recognise that they need to get their facts right. Not for nothing did Michael Foot refer, justifiably, to the Daily Mail as "the Forgers' Gazette".

Another aspect of the quality of life of people in London and the south-east is their ability to have access to art and culture. There was an attitude under the Conservative Government that interest in art and culture stopped at a certain point going down the socio-economic scale. This Government have rightly taken a different view. They have invested significantly in that area and brought about policy changes that benefit our constituents in London and the south-east, particularly the introduction of free access to museums to which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government referred. That has been a huge and popular success. Attendances at our national museums since the policy was fully implemented at the beginning of December are up, on average, by about 100 per cent. It is children, the elderly and poor families, in particular, who benefit from that enrichment of their lives.

We are on the point of introducing another significant change that will benefit the arts and culture in London and the south-east, namely the substantial and unprecedented increase in funding for regional theatre starting on 1 April

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this year. The increase for theatres in the eastern region, through East England Arts, is £1.3 million over two years. That is a 110 per cent. increase in funding, and there is a similar picture in London, which will get a 92 per cent. increase. That demonstrates an unprecedented degree of funding, opening up our arts, culture and theatres and enriching the quality of life for people in London and the south-east, and throughout the country.

On many of the issues affecting the quality of life, most reasonable people would conclude that the Government are facing up to the concerns and making substantial progress, although there is always much more to be done. In that regard, I find it puzzling that the Liberal Democrats will be supporting the Conservatives on this issue in the Lobby tonight. I think that that decision has little to do with political principle and a great deal more to do with the tactical repositioning that appears to be under way by the Liberal Democrats at the moment, in which a crude and cynical calculation is being made about which seats are on their hit list and which menu of political policies they therefore need to put to the electorate. I would welcome an intervention from the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on this. I tried to intervene on him earlier, but he would not let me.

I have charted some of the improvements that have taken place, but I do not claim that everything is perfect. Clearly, as time goes on, there will be new times and new challenges. The Governments who endure and retain popular support have to face up to those new challenges. I want briefly to sketch out some of the challenges that we are facing in London and the south-east. First, the need for a better rail and tube service is paramount, as has been loudly trumpeted on the Opposition Benches. I also know this from my constituents, particularly those who commute into London.

When I discuss these matters with my constituents, as I do regularly, they are unconvinced by the Conservative bluster on the issue. They know that the situation we are in is a result of decades of under-investment in the railways and the tube service. They certainly have long memories: they remember that it was a Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher who came up with the policy of completely removing public subsidy from Network SouthEast and British Rail, as they then were.

My constituents also remember that it was the Conservative party that drove through the flawed and ideologically driven privatisation of British Rail that got us into this situation. However, they remain to be convinced—they want to be convinced—that the Government have the plans and the strategy to repair our rail and tube networks. People feel instinctively that we have taken the right decision on Railtrack. If there is a criticism, it is that the decision was not taken sooner. People desperately want the not-for-profit company to be up and running and improving our rail infrastructure as quickly as possible. They also want the PPP to be up and running, and to see the reality of the increased investment.

The second major challenge that we must face up to is the need to improve the quality and volume of homes to rent in London and the south-east. No area of public spending under the Conservative Government was cut as much as that on council housing. They had a right-to-buy

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policy, and nothing else. This Government have made a good start with a 50 per cent. increase in housing investment.

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