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1.22 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): When the Minister opened the debate, she talked in measured terms about the Government's proposals to improve the quality of life. It was unfortunate that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) accused her of issuing a distorted press release before going on to give us the Tory press release for the day.

When the Tories and others denigrate the national health service as part of the quality of life argument, they should be careful. It is true that the Daily Mail can find a casualty here, there and everywhere every day, but those of us who go to hospital on a regular basis have seen for ourselves the smiling faces of the winners who come out after seeing the doctor for a check-up or whatever. When I discuss things with those people, almost every one of them praises the NHS to the skies. That was true of my brother as well, who recently died of cancer. Before he passed away, he had nothing but praise for the treatment that he received from nurses and everyone else who cared for him during his four to five-year struggle.

When politicians—the Tories and Liberals in particular—slag off the NHS, they do not fully realise just how many people have to use it. As we live longer, more and more of us will rely on it. Those of us who have had a second mortgage on life will defend the NHS. I am pleased that, in order to improve the quality of life, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has come up with an idea that some people might regard as old Labour. For me, however, it is sensible and necessary. It means that those pensioners who are going to benefit from the NHS like never before are not going to have to contribute to the national insurance levy.

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I therefore think that it was a good proposal. It will mean that the quality of life in all our constituencies will be vastly improved over the course of the next 10 or 15 years. It may not be perfect—I am not one of those politicians who believes that we can discover or produce nirvana in the morning—but it will make one hell of a difference to those people who use it.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire also referred to crime. The Tories ought to keep their trap shut about crime. It is not just a problem on the Sheffield estates, although my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) spoke eloquently about his meetings. If we think about Archer and Aitken and about Lady Porter—and where she ought to be, as she owes £27 million but they cannot get hold of her—the truth is that crime cuts across all swathes of society.

The same thing applies to the argument that we have heard about drugs. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson)—I say this advisedly—was talking about the drugs issue as if it related to working-class people alone. However, the truth is that it cuts across large sections of society. I have had people in my surgery such as 27-year-old heroin users who are in a job; they have not been dragged in and they did not work in the pit. This issue has accelerated and has been accentuated in the last 20 or 30 years. It was not around when I was a kid. We used to smoke fags as we were going over the hills to school, and we thought we were involved in a great escape. Today, however, it is totally different.

I have not yet got caught up with those who believe that we ought to legalise this, that and the other. I shall certainly not advance the idea that was put forward by a leading Liberal Democrat the other day to improve the quality of life. She said that we ought to be handing out free cocaine. If I voted for that, people in my ex-pit villages would be saying, "What about free fags and free ale and all the rest?" Liberal Democrats say some barmy things. We can all dream up a fantasy solution, but we must find the money; it must be sensible, and it must make a difference.

I entered this debate principally because I was born and bred in a pit village and I represent a constituency that used to have about 25 pits. I watched the quality of life deteriorate in the period when pits were being shut left, right and centre in my constituency. By the time the Tories had gone, the net result was that every single pit in north Derbyshire had gone. As a result, thousands of people were without work. One of the things that I have been trying to do to improve the quality of life in each of the pit villages is to try to restore the social fabric that was decimated by those Tory Governments who decided to get rid of all the pits.

At the end, there was a qualitative change—in 1962, when I was a miner, I was transferred from one pit to another one, but there were no transfer pits for those that were closed in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. That is why, in the past four or five years, we have had limited success in trying to rebuild those communities. I would be foolish and naive, however, if I did not give the impression that once the social fabric and the tightly knit community of a pit village has been destroyed, it is a big job to try to get it back on its feet. That is why I have always concentrated on the issue of jobs and the need to get more jobs into those areas that have suffered even more.

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I am pleased that in the past five years we have had an economy that is getting more and more people back into work. I was here between 1974 and 1979 and I saw the opposite. One of this Government's redeeming features is that, whereas in 1976 we were having to tear up the Labour manifesto and shoot off to borrow from the International Monetary Fund, we now have a bob or two to give the IMF to bail out the 22 under-developed countries and improve their quality of life as well. I know that the quality of life in Bolsover will not continue to improve unless we manage to get our macro-economic policies right. That means concentrating on reducing unemployment. There is no doubt that it has gone down even in my area, principally because of the general state of the economy.

My hon. Friend the Minister visited my area to look at Shirebrook and one or two other pit villages. Together, we are trying to rebuild those areas. I have to tell the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that we got a sum from the lottery to refurbish Shirebrook miners' welfare, and I have been as good as the next Member at getting money for this, that and the other. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and her predecessor both declared that the pit areas that were hammered mercilessly will get favourable treatment, so Shirebrook miners' welfare, a necessary part of the village, has been improved.

I have to be careful about what I say about all these figures, but I got £24 million for the Shirebrook pit site, not from the lottery but from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had to sign for that personally because the amount was more than the original £20 million, but I managed to force him into it. There will now be an industrial site on the old pit tip. My hon. Friend the Minister went there and knows that the heat was tremendous because of the spontaneous combustion underneath.

We are going to develop the housing, much of which is derelict as a result of pirate landlords moving into the Coal Board housing estates and taking over. They take the rent for a short period but do nothing with the houses, which fall into rack and ruin. Now we have to pick up the pieces and try to ensure that the whole village can last the next 40 or 50 years. So there is the miners' welfare, housing and jobs where the pit used to be. I have been taking action in many of my villages. We have to get a bit more money, so I hope that my hon. Friend is listening carefully. We want some more money for Creswell model village. We have made a start and got rid of 80 old houses, and I think there are another 160 to go, so my hon. Friend will be hearing about that.

Another proposal is to do something with the old Markham area, where there were several pits. An announcement has been made by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. That is the Department that took back Railtrack. Our shiny new Labour Secretary of State upset the Tories because it looked as if he was acting out of character when he took Railtrack back into the public sector. Frankly, I think he did a great job on that score. On top of that, he agrees with me that the M1 will have a new junction, 29A, leading to an industrial site at Markham that will produce between 8,000 and 9,000 jobs. It will be bigger than Meadowhall, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe knows all about. These jobs will not be in shops; they will be in factories and so on. It will be the biggest industrial development since they sunk the pits.

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Hon. Members can see that I have been pretty active behind the scenes, trying to restore the social fabric and improve the quality of life in our area. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister knows this, but we have got £7 million for the King's Mill hospital. That is not in my constituency, but right on the border, so I cannot take the credit for that. However, there is £7 million to improve the Frederick Gent school at South Normanton, and there is another matter that I hope to sort out eventually.

What I am trying to say is that we cannot do any of that unless the economy is doing well. We cannot do anything, in socialist terms, if we are skint and if we are having to beg and borrow. That is why it is very important that the national economy is kept on an even keel, with more people in work and more people paying tax and national insurance. We can then have a regional policy whereby we can provide more money where it is absolutely necessary. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) is here. People in Wales and other parts of Britain understand that we have to restore opportunities in the areas that got hammered.

The quality of life in mining areas was never superb. I am not one of those ex-miners who has a romantic view of the wonderful past working down a pit. The camaraderie was wonderful, but it was a lousy job. We are trying to recreate jobs and improve the quality of life in those areas, and we have made a bit of a start. If we continue along that path, in 10 or 20 years' time, we will have made some of the pit villages that were almost destroyed, with their boarded-up houses all over the place, look a bit better; and if we can get jobs in those areas, I have no doubt that the quality of life will have improved in ways we can be proud of.

Quality of life means that people have to have the right to roam, whether or not they have a job. I am pleased that we passed the legislation securing that right. We shall be able to see the little foxes roaming all over the place, because we will ban hunting—there will be no third way, will there? No. We shall be able to see all the little foxes in Chatsworth park—we shall be able to trample all over the Duke of Devonshire's land.

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