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Bob Spink: I congratulate my hon. Friend on recently achieving a ripe old age, and hope that he has a wonderful birthday celebration this evening. If I sponsor him for his charity walk, will he sponsor me for my charity run in the London marathon?
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): I wish to discuss a local issuea dispute with my local community health trustwhich I regret having to raise in the House. For over three years, I have pursued all formal means of following up my concerns, but have been left with no option but to take this means of making them public.
At stake is the important democratic principle of whether Members of Parliament should be allowed to represent the interests of their constituents and whether they should be allowed to hold bodies such as NHS trusts to account. The original issue was simple: a constituent of mine was summarily dismissed from her staff post on what I have demonstrated was a trumped-up charge of professional misconduct. She appealed, and her post was filled while her appeal was pending. She won her appealthere is no evidence from the records of the appeal to suggest anything other than thatbut management treated her as if she had lost. She was redeployed to another post on a salary £8,000 lower than her original salary.
Over the past three years this has become a very complicated matter, and my file on it is now very thick. Each attempt I have made to question the actions of management, which I believe amount to maladministration, has been met by the same sort of response. The responses are characterised by a determined attempt to block me. They have used evasion, selection of facts and distortion of the history of events, and have generally imposed layer upon layer of obfuscation.
There have been dirty tricks, too. There have been insulting references to me. I can wear that: I am a Member of Parliament. But there have been allegations, totally unfounded and untrue, that I pursued the matter only in return for sexual favours from the member of staff concerned. I have met her only once, in the boardroom of the community health trust. Another health service employee has received warnings not to pursue a relationship with her if he values his career in the NHS, and I believe there have been many attempts to block her opportunities of obtaining other posts. It has been very, very dirty.
The management have protested that, according to their solicitors, nothing wrong has been donethat the North West regional executive has examined the situation, and can find nothing wrong. That is naturally true: the case was presented to it by the very people whom I wish to call to account.
For three years I offered repeatedly to present my case directly to the board, and for three years I was steadfastly ignored. I therefore went to the board's December meeting and intervened, directly requesting my own meeting with the board to present my case in person. That request, too, was ignored. I wrote to the chairman in January in order to put my request in writing. He eventually refused it, on the specious ground that it concerned a confidential matter that the board could not discuss with mespecious, because it avoids two issues.
The member of staff strongly wishes me to present confidential matters affecting her to the board. There is nothing to stop the board from listening to what I have to say, and then going into private session to discuss it along with, perhaps, other confidential matters. I wrote to the non-executive directors pointing out that they too were being deprived of an opportunity to listen to what I had
Given my bitter experience of dealing with the chief executive and chairman of this trust over three years, I do not believe that the letter went astray in the post. I do not believe that it was ever sent. Yesterday the chairman offered to conduct an internal investigation. I told him not to bother.
Yesterday I attended the final meeting of the trust, which, because of the reorganisation, is going out of existence at the end of this week, and voiced my objections once again. The chairman insisted even then that he would not allow me to present my case, but said that I could meet the non-executive directors informally after the end of the final meetingthe winding-up meetingof the board. That was the only option left to me, and the only option after that was to take the matter public, in the press or in the House. I chose the House.
I met the non-executive directors informally at the end of their meeting and was interested in their response. They had had a very interesting closed session before meeting me. When I presented my case, they were happy to accept that it fitted a pattern of malpractice that they had identified in other, more serious, areas which they had been discussing in a fraught closed session and which had been referred to the district auditor and up to the Secretary of State for Health for investigation. I feel vindicatedI am not the only person to believe that there was malpractice in the trust.
I ask the Leader of the House to refer my complaints also to the Secretary of State. The former non-executive directors will agree with me. I hope that the Secretary of State will make it clear to all NHS trusts that he will not tolerate attempts to prevent local MPs from holding them democratically to account for their actions.
I have two local issues to draw to the attention of the House. The first is infrastructure planningor, rather, the lack of infrastructure planning. Lack of long-term planning is a hindrance to the United Kingdom. It is a hindrance to the economy and local businesses and a pain to individuals. There is not even a joined-up system. The planning process can be painfully drawn out over a number of years, or it can be extremely quick. Things can be built overnight before local residents realise that there was any intention to construct anything.
I know that the Kingskerswell bypass has been mentioned in the House on numerous occasions, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) in recent times. The village of Kingskerswell has the third greatest amount of traffic in Devon. It is beaten only by the traffic flow at the end of the M5 near Exeter and by the traffic crossing the Marsh Mills flyover in Plymouth. However, I am talking about an ordinary road, with sets of traffic lights and houses on either side.
During the summer, the traffic bottleneck delays tourist and business traffic trying to get to and from Torquay. During the winter, there is less of a bottleneck, but the road is still gridlocked at many times of the day. Traffic is forced to use country lanes as a rat run to avoid the slow crawl between Torquay and Newton Abbot.
Lack of planning is a major concern. The road was planned for many years. In the 1970s a length of dual carriageway was built from the end of the M5 as far as Newton Abbot; then it stopped. It is clear from the road layout that it was designed to go on towards Torquay. It is clear from the estate layout and the roads on Buckland, where new estates were built at the time, that they were designed to have feeder roads coming across towards Newton Abbot, so that there was no bottleneck and not just one roundabout to cope with all the traffic.
The local authority in its infinite wisdom allowed a supermarket to be constructed right at the roundabout. That severely restricted the options available to the county council, or the Highways Agency before that, for the design and construction of a road. If it were a major trunk road, there would be a compulsory purchase order and the supermarket would be knocked down; but sadly, that is not in the gift of the county council, which has been left with responsibility for the road, after the Conservative Government removed its trunk road status and said that it was no longer the Government's responsibility. It may be the third busiest road in Devon, but it is now the responsibility of the county council. It was a sad day when the Tories reneged on promises to construct the bypass.
There has been a total lack of planning. A proposal is to be made by the county council, which will have to look for private funding. The process is so long and drawn out, despite the demonstrable need and the desire of local people for the road. There will have to be a consultation process, then planning, and we will end up with a public inquiry. After the funding has been put in place, construction might begin in 2007 or 2008. For the people who live on the road, use the road and suffer the existing road, that is not an acceptable way of planning highway needs. It is also immensely damaging to the economy, particularly of Torquay and to some extent of my constituency.
In addition to infrastructure planning, we must consider road design and the quality of the end product. With the move towards private sector funding for roads, I am worried that we will end up with a result similar to the worst of 1960s housebuilding or motorway design, where everything was done on the cheap.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to drive to Brussels. I shall not comment on the roads in Belgium, but on the roads in France the design of the lay-bys, service stations and toilets is of strikingly high quality. The standard and quality of the design of the bridges, too, is striking. That is the case in other parts of Europe as well.
We tend to end up with cheap, mundane design, which is damaging to the environment and to those who live near the roads or use them every day. We ought to think more clearly about the fact that what we construct will be there for a long time. It is said that doctors bury their mistakes. Architects and civil engineers can only grow ivy in front of theirs, and hope that they disappear one day.
Public transport services are also characterised by a lack of thought and infrastructure planning. I shall not deal with the local bus problems and the lack of rural buses, as that has been dealt with on other occasions. However, I must comment in passing that it is sad when a rural bus service from somewhere in the middle of DartmoorMoretonhampstead, saywhich takes people to work in Newton Abbot by 9 am has to be withdrawn because of lack of funding, and the earliest that people can get into Newton Abbot now is 10 or 10.30 am. That does not strike me as joined-up thinking about transport systems.
I must also mention rail transport and the use of the rail networknot the big scheme of things, but local services. We need to put in extra local stations. People in Kingskerswell have been campaigning for a new station for a long time.
People in the Bovey Tracey/Heathfield area of my constituency have also been campaigning for some time. A parish council that I met the other night mentioned the matter to me. The rail link to Heathfield, where there is a large housing estate and an industrial estate, could be reopened to passenger transport. The county council has been asked about that, but says that it does not have the resources for an impact study to consider the viability of the options. Again, it all comes down to a lack of planning. I cannot say whether a rail link to Heathfield is a viable option, but if the local community regards it as important, it ought to be considered.
I referred to the problems with the Kingskerswell bypass and the road from the Buckland estate toward Newton Abbott. Not long ago, I asked the county engineer what detailed planning he could undertake on traffic flows east to west across Newton Abbott, which tends to be bottlenecked for most of the summer months, in particular on market days. He said that he did not have the funding to look into that. It is vital that all those areas be considered before viable options are ruled out. The supermarket that was built in Newton Abbott has caused immense problems for the building of the Kingskerswell bypass.
I mentioned the problem that some processes are painfully drawn out, but some are painfully quick. Just after the war, a number of authorities were granted in legislation, for good reason, the right to construct and build without having to refer to or get the consent of local authorities or any other authority. The railways have some such rights, but I am thinking in particular of the docks.
Teignmouth is a viable local port and I wish it every success. I cannot but worry, however, that the port authority has the right to build storage sheds along the entire length of its quay, completely obscuring the views from, and putting a wall of steel in front of, the houses in Alexander terrace and the other streets up the hill behind italthough I realise that there is no right to a view. It cannot be right that no one can question the port authority's right to do that. It goes against all that I understood to be local democracy that that should be allowed to happen. I am saying not that the authority should not be allowed to do it, but that the proposal must be questioned and local residents must have the right to their local authority questioning the proposal. I am told that a port authority could build a silo 100 or 200 ft high without having to get any consent, which would have a severe environmental impact on the area.
On another subject, in a social care debate in January I raised the lack of funding for social services in the south-west. I drew the attention of the Minister present to a report by the 15 authorities in the area, which said that they were having to divert funding for elderly people to cope with child protection requirements. I have been told since that the funding available to many local authorities will only just cover the bare legal minimum without all the other requirements that they must meet to ensure that children are not abused and have a fair and reasonable start in life.
The Minister responded that what had been described was clearly unacceptable and promised that she would investigate the matter. To date, I have heard not a word from her. I raised the matter three weeks ago with the Leader of the House, who promised that he would raise it with the Secretary of State. Again, I have heard nothing, so I hope that this will be third time lucky, and that we will get a response on this important issue.