Previous SectionIndexHome Page

13 Nov 2002 : Column 78—continued

7.6 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Much of today's debate has concerned the need to improve public services. Indeed, nothing is more important than a more effective police; a criminal justice system that works; good teachers and improved education; and well-motivated and well-rewarded NHS staff and a better health service. The only difficulty is this: we hear the same claims from the Government every year.

In last year's Queen's Speech, the Government trumpeted

I suspect that if all those present were asked to name a supposed flagship Bill produced in the last Session, many of us would have difficulty in doing so. Indeed, I doubt that many Ministers could name a Bill that had made a difference. One year on, I do not think that last year's legislation has brought much change to my constituents and others in north Oxfordshire.

Every year we read the pre-Gracious Speech hype in the Sunday newspapers, forecasting great reform and great improvements. The Prime Minister was at it again over the weekend, saying

I agree, but the Government have had an opportunity to deal with that. Indeed, they have already introduced a number of criminal justice Bills since taking office. The problem is that those Bills have not worked. It has been all posturing and no delivery.

I suspect that I am not untypical, and barely a day passes without my being approached by a constituent telling me of antisocial behaviour suffered by him or her, and his or her family, at the hands of mindless people. Only this morning I received an e-mail from a constituent, telling me:

A little while ago, a constituent in Bicester wrote to me to tell me:

That is in rural north Oxfordshire, not some inner-city area.

13 Nov 2002 : Column 79

I do not suppose that I am alone among hon. Members in recalling at least one instance of a different antisocial crime affecting a different family in a different street on each different day in my constituency. A youth in my constituency has committed so many crimes and jumped bail so frequently that it would make the average supermarket shopping receipt look short.

I took that up with Ministers. The Lord Chancellor's Department said:

Likewise, the Home Office said:

All that seems amazingly similar to the sentiments expressed by the Prime Minister ahead of the Queen's Speech, so one has to wonder what the Government have been doing in all the years since they came to office. Little has changed over the past years with respect to antisocial behaviour and I—and I am sure many others—are sceptical about whether much will change over the coming year. Why is that? It is simply because the measures announced today are either old measures dressed up as new measures or proposals that are more concerned with berating the police over tackling antisocial crime than with dealing with the yobs who commit such crime.

I understand that the Prime Minister is frustrated at the failure of the police, courts and councils to use existing powers to curb antisocial behaviour, but let me explain why that may be. One of the earlier trumpeted measures to deal with antisocial behaviour was the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders. That was what was going to sort out young yobs on housing estates who make elderly people's lives a misery by persistent low-level antisocial behaviour. The Government introduced a Bill to introduce the orders. So far, Cherwell district council in my constituency has managed to get just one antisocial behaviour order and that took over a year. It was subjected to delays, red tape and obstruction by the individual, not surprisingly, on whom the order was going to be served.

If it takes a district council over a year to get a single antisocial behaviour order, it gives rise to the question whether we are not seeing a certain amount of gimmickry? Would it not be better for the Government to look at the measures that they have already introduced and to ensure that they are effective, rather than trying to give the impression that they are doing something about crime by producing more and more Bills and putting them on to the statute book?

I come to the police and the courts. We have in the Gracious Speech a Bill that seeks to assist victims of crime by reducing the rights of defendants. I suspect that the measure will be opposed by almost every organisation involved in English law. That Liberty, the Legal Action Group, the Criminal Bar Association and the Bar Council have issued a joint statement against the proposed changes to the criminal justice system—it is

13 Nov 2002 : Column 80

the first time, as a barrister, that I can remember a joint statement bringing organisations such as Liberty and the Criminal Bar Association together—is a clear indictment of the Bill.

I do not believe that people in my constituency are looking to be treated as the victims in court. They do not want to go to court at all. They do not want to be victims in the first place. The best way of ensuring that is through the higher visibility of police officers on the street.

Last night, in Banbury, I spoke at the 184th dinner of the Neithrop Association for the Protection of Property. As hon. Members can see by virtue of the fact that it was its 184th dinner, that organisation has been going for a considerable time. It came into being before the introduction of the police service as we know it today. I suppose that 200 people were present from all walks of commercial, business and retail life in Banbury. I did not speak for long but the loudest cheers I got were when I said that we needed to see more police officers on the streets of Banbury. I suspect that the vast majority of people do not want the Government to introduce new gimmicks of on-the-spot fines for people who drop chewing gum. They want to see and have the comfort of knowing that more police officers are on the street.

Andrew Mackinlay: Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the two are mutually exclusive? He wants more policemen on the beat. There cannot be an hon. Member who would not sign up to that. These are innovative, experimental ideas. I do not see why the Government should be ashamed to complement officers on the beat by trying these other measures. It is common sense. It is laudable.

Tony Baldry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because I clearly have not been sufficiently clear and he has given me the opportunity to clarify my remarks. My complaint is that often we have gimmickry dressed up as policy. Much of it distracts people from the real problem. In my patch, the real problem with regard to law and order is insufficient police officers.

In the Thames Valley area, two police officers may live next door but the one who works for the Metropolitan police gets free transport and is paid #6,000 a year more. It is hardly surprising that Thames Valley is bleeding police officers as they move either to the Metropolitan area where they get paid more or to forces such as Lincolnshire where the housing costs are considerably less and they can buy a lot more with what they earn.

Whether it is a statistical quirk or a problem with the funding arrangements, the simple fact is that, next year, the amount that Thames Valley police will receive from the Government is a staggering #77 million below the average for all other police forces, which puts further severe strains on the force. Indeed, I think that, just to stand still next year, Thames Valley police authority will need a 30 per cent. increase in its portion of the council allocation. It is losing out substantially in the amount of money that it receives from central Government.

Before they have more legislation, more criminal justice Bills and Acts and more gimmicks, people in my constituency, in Oxfordshire and indeed throughout the Thames valley would like a properly funded well-recruited police force that has a chance of retaining

13 Nov 2002 : Column 81

police officers. Too many of the police officers on the street at the moment are recent recruits; although they are excellent that is grossly unfair on them and on everyone else.

Brian White: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that things such as the restorative justice project, which Thames Valley police pioneered, should not be taken up by the Government and that we should rely simply on the tired rhetoric that he is coming out with?

Tony Baldry: I have no complaints against Thames Valley police. We have been fortunate in having a succession of extremely good, innovative chief constables. The present chief constable is in that mould but whatever initiatives the police take on restorative justice or any other area of policy will be as nought if, as often happens, there are fewer than four police officers on duty in the whole of Banbury and all the surrounding villages on a Saturday evening. That situation would be unacceptable in anyone's constituency.

There is also a problem with the Court Service. The Government are understandably concerned about the length of time it takes for cases to come to court. The chief executive of Thames Valley court service, which is based in Bicester, recently wrote to me expressing deep concern that more than 50 staff had left over the past six months, which had led to the cancellation of more than 200 trials. He described how

I suspect that the solution to north Oxfordshire's Court Service problem is not dissimilar to that of many of those working in the public services in and around the Thames valley. The staff need to be competitively paid. Otherwise, they will look for more lucrative jobs.

I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on one issue. A debate on the Queen's Speech is not just about those measures that are in it, but about those measures that have been left out. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was disappointed that there was no Bill on corporate manslaughter. That would not be a gimmick. The Labour party has made that an election pledge not once, but twice; at both of the last two general elections. Omitting the Bill from the Queen's Speech is very much letting down employees and their families.

I wish to refer to the tragic case of my constituent Simon Jones, who was brutally killed. He was a student at Sussex university and had to work during the vacation to earn some money. He went to Shoreham docks and was killed on his first day in tragic circumstances. I do not use the word glibly, but in many ways it has destroyed the lives of his parents and family.

I went to the Old Bailey to watch the trial of the chairman of the company concerned. Under our present law, it is almost impossible to get a conviction against an individual director or person responsible, and the company was fined a pretty derisory amount. The Government have been consulting for a long time on the issue and they had almost got to a draft Bill. I think that they simply backed away in the face of pressure from employers.

As a traditional Conservative, I have always believed that it is right that the state should intervene in these matters. Indeed, most of the early legislation on

13 Nov 2002 : Column 82

factories was introduced by Disraeli's Governments. It seems to me that the state has a duty to try to ensure that people have a safe place to work. Our record on deaths at work in this country is appalling and some sectors of industry have particularly poor records. I know that the Health and Safety Executive does a good job, but if directors—I speak as a director of a number of companies, as anyone who consults the Register will see—knew that they stood in peril of losing their freedom if they did not ensure that their work force had, so far as is possible, a safe place of work, it would substantially reduce the death rate of people at work in this country.

I hope that Labour Back Benchers will take this matter up with the Government because it is a dereliction of duty that such a Bill is not in the Gracious Speech. One can only hope that a Member will propose a private Member's Bill on the subject, or that the Government will see the need for such a Bill on a future occasion. The Government have got that one wrong.

The other parts of the public services about which we are concerned are our hospitals and schools. It gives me no pleasure to report that Oxfordshire has one of the worst-rated hospitals in the country, the Oxford Radcliffe hospital, which received only one star last year and, despite the hard work of its staff, still has only one star out of three under the Government's own ratings. That is not the fault of the staff working there. There is a critical shortage of staff in the NHS in Oxfordshire. A recent count revealed that of the 1,250 nursing posts at the Oxford Radcliffe NHS trust, 400 were vacant. I suspect that a similar number is filled by nurses from overseas—excellent nurses from the Philippines and elsewhere who by definition are temporary and will not be in this country for long. We have a critical problem.

The hospital needs more nurses and staff and—like most of the NHS, I suspect—fewer bureaucrats. I understand that for every bed in the NHS, there is an NHS manager somewhere. We must not focus on new legislation. I am not quite sure what foundation hospitals will do; I suspect that they will not do much to create nurses for the Oxford Radcliffe or the Horton hospital. Even if the Oxford Radcliffe and the Horton hospital could recruit a full complement of nurses, we could not afford to pay them, and our ability to do so will be further eroded by the Government-imposed underfunding of the budgets. There is little in the Queen's Speech that will help to address this adverse balance.

The state of Oxfordshire's hospitals is compounded by serious reductions in Oxfordshire county council's social services budget. Oxfordshire social services has for the past three years been getting a raw deal from Whitehall. Milton Keynes, which is almost next door, gets nearly a fifth more investment than Oxfordshire from central Government; yet, clearly, the cost of living, staff costs and care costs are not dissimilar.

Last week, I went to No. 10 Downing street with a constituent called Geoff Watts, whose elderly married parents—both in their eighties and in need of care—had been put in separate nursing homes, some distance apart. That was an appalling situation; a bit like going back to the days of the workhouse, where men and women were separated. That occurred simply because Oxfordshire county council can only afford to get two new people into residential care each week. It was a

13 Nov 2002 : Column 83

complete disgrace and a tragedy that they should have been in those circumstances and that the county council did not have the funds to get them into the care home together. Until they were reunited last week, it was a desperately tragic situation. Unfortunately, it was not unprecedented in Oxfordshire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) said that the Prime Minister did not visit large parts of the country, and I agree. I think it would be a good thing and I would welcome more Ministers visiting Oxfordshire. Sometimes there is a perception that the home counties such as Oxfordshire are all dreaming spires and leafy roads. That is not the case. Many parts of my constituency have areas of considerable social need. As a result of the Government's recent consultation on redistributing local government grants, Oxfordshire county council faces either a 32 per cent. council tax rise or a #43 million cut to its budget.

Even if the Government introduce a complex series of floors and ceilings to dampen any such loss, it is almost certain that elderly care will continue to be under-resourced, that youth groups will be under threat and that foster care will lose its foundation. Even if the final option chosen by the Government next month is less severe than some of us have feared, Oxfordshire will not see fairer funding for its public services. That makes a complete mockery of proposed legislation on community care discharge. The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) said that community care discharge would work effectively if local authorities and social services had the funding to take on that responsibility.

Over the last couple of years, Oxfordshire has substantially contracted the support it can give to elderly people living in the community. If the Government do not commit the funds to local authorities such as Oxfordshire county council, any legislation on community care discharge will be a mockery.

These are the sorts of thing about which people in north Oxfordshire are concerned—properly funded public services. They are not particularly concerned about local government gimmicks to do with the possibility of regional assemblies.

Banbury has absolutely nothing in common with Brighton. Henley has nothing in common with Hove. Witney has nothing in common with Worthing. The idea that the south-east is a homogeneous entity, which can be brought together in a regional assembly—[Laughter.] Quite rightly, Labour Members laugh at even the possibility of Banbury's having anything to do with Brighton. The ludicrousness of it is that three miles to the north is Northamptonshire, technically in the east midlands, while three miles in the other direction is Stratford, technically in the west midlands. My constituents want to have decent public services, delivered locally by local authorities that they know and understand. They understand the district council and the county council, and they will see the desire to have regional assemblies taking powers away from their district and their county as yet another gimmick and a distraction. No one that I have come across in my patch wants a regional assembly.

13 Nov 2002 : Column 84

I ask myself, what is there in this Queen's Speech that speaks to the condition of those I am privileged to represent in Parliament? The answer is, very little. Yes, they want decent public services, but more specifically they want more police officers on the street; a decently funded, well-recruited national health service; and properly funded schools and social services. They do not want the Government tinkering—or, more than tinkering, messing about with—the local government financing formula, taking money from the south and, I am bound to say, giving it to their friends in the north. Those are the critical issues for people in Oxfordshire. Some will be concerned that the Government have dodged, and run away from, difficult issues such as corporate manslaughter.

Finally, I wish to pick up something that the hon. Member for Thurrock said. I would be more impressed by the Government's attempts at pre-legislative scrutiny if the Bills listed to be subjected to such scrutiny were not so excruciatingly boring that no human being—with the exception of someone who has a really sad life, reading draft Bills in bed at night—would want to read them.

I serve on the Select Committee on International Development, which I am fortunate enough to chair. The hon. Member for Thurrock serves on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. We, and the Defence Committee and the Trade and Industry Committee, came together in the Quadripartite Committee, and in the last Parliament we put forward, as four senior Select Committees of the House, a very modest suggestion that, following the Government's proposal for an ethical foreign policy, it would be good if there could be prior scrutiny, by Select Committees of the House, of key defence sales licensing decisions. That suggestion, if I may use the expression, got two fingers from the Government. What indication is there that if the Government offer Select Committees prior scrutiny on such issues, they will take any notice of the results? I doubt very much whether allowing such scrutiny will make the legislative process much better, but it gives the impression that the Government are doing something. They will be able to say that they can rush their Bills through the House much more quickly because we have all had the opportunity to read the Bills in draft. I suspect that it will be yet another way in which the rights of Members of Parliament will strangely and perversely be eroded rather than enhanced.

There is very little about this Queen's Speech that gives me any cause for optimism and a lot that gives me considerable cause for concern.

Next Section

IndexHome Page