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2.58 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): I am grateful once again to have the opportunity to participate in an end-of-Session Adjournment debate. These debates really do provide Members with an opportunity to comment on a wide range of issues right across the political spectrum.

The first issue that I wish to comment on today is the war in Iraq and its aftermath. I was not fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye on the occasions when this matter was debated in the House, especially before the conflict, and I would therefore like to take this opportunity to put my position on the public record.

I abhor the use of violence in all its forms. It runs contrary to my moral, intellectual and religious beliefs, and I find the appalling carnage, death and destruction that occur during a war almost too horrific to contemplate. Yet, despite having those deeply held views, I am also pragmatic enough to know that, in the dangerous world in which we live, there are occasions on which the use of military force is both necessary and justified. I had to be totally convinced that the use of military force was essential and that it complied with the requirements of international law before I supported military action against Iraq earlier this year. Throughout the pre-war period I was greatly encouraged by the Government's attempts to secure the peaceful disarmament of Iraq, under the auspices of the UN Security Council. The Government's role in persuading the US to follow the UN route, and in securing UN resolution 1441, was commendable.

The policy of backing up resolution 1441 with a credible threat of military action if Iraq did not fully comply with its terms offered the best chance for the peaceful disarmament of Iraq then. However, as we are all aware, the French declaration of an intention to veto any resolution that specifically allowed the use of military action effectively scuppered that course of action. In my view, that collapse of the diplomatic process made war inevitable. The only question that remained to be answered was whether Britain should commit its armed forces to the conflict.

I was convinced that Iraq did possess chemical and biological weapons and had to be disarmed. I was also convinced that weapons inspectors would not be able to

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achieve anything meaningful without the full and active co-operation of the Iraqi regime. I was further convinced that the Iraqi regime had no intention of giving that co-operation. Additionally, I believed that Saddam Hussein would not hesitate to use his weapons, or to supply them to terrorist organisations for use, against his perceived enemies. He and his regime had a proven track record of crimes against humanity. We have all now seen the mass graves. Of course, I could have been wrong then, but I was not prepared to take that chance and therefore I supported the Government's decision to commit our forces to the conflict in Iraq.

The fact that as yet no weapons of mass destruction have been found does not lead me to conclude that the intelligence provided to the British and American Governments was seriously flawed. If we consider the situation in Northern Ireland and the issue of disarming the paramilitaries, we see that small organisations have been able to conceal arms and explosives in a relatively small area, and the combined efforts of the military, the intelligence agencies and the police force have been unable to detect them for more than 30 years. So it is hardly surprising that in a country the size of Iraq the former Iraqi regime has been able to hide its weapons. In my view, that merely demonstrates the futility of endlessly continuing with the UN weapons inspections. Throughout the Iraq crisis, the Prime Minister has displayed great fortitude, leadership and statesmanship and I commend him for that. The same cannot be said for the Leader of the Opposition.

I shall now touch briefly on a couple of other issues. Although they are completely unrelated, they do have a common thread in that there are heated arguments in political circles about whether or not they should be the subject of referendums.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The hon. Lady has been uncharacteristically curt and ungracious about my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Many hon. Members will share her admiration for the Prime Minister's statesmanship, but will also be prepared to put on record their admiration for the fact that the Leader of the Opposition, from the start of the war to its finish, was wholehearted in his support for the Government and the British national interest.

Geraldine Smith: The Leader of the Opposition did fully support the Government during the conflict in Iraq. He called for us to take action and was behind the action that was taken, but now he seems to have changed his mind. He is taking an opportunistic view of a serious matter that should be above party politics.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Geraldine Smith: No, I am sorry, but I am limited to 10 minutes. I have moved on to the forthcoming European constitution—which may prompt more interventions—and to the proposals for English regional government and, in particular, a referendum for the north-west. I shall make it clear at the outset that I am not in favour of a referendum for either proposal.

Taking the European constitution first, it appears to me to be premature, if not slightly absurd, to call for a referendum on a matter that is still very much subject to

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negotiation, the final outcome of which may have no significant constitutional impact on our citizens. Referendums should be held only when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held only when people know exactly what they are getting. I would therefore urge the Prime Minister to continue to resist the ill founded and opportunistic calls from the anti-European element, in the House and elsewhere, for an open-ended commitment to a referendum, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations on the European constitution.

On the question of regional government, it would perhaps be more appropriate to refer to it as local government reorganisation, because it appears to have far more to do with the latter than the former. In this instance, I am opposed to a referendum being held, because we have more important matters to address, such as health, education, crime and antisocial behaviour. I am also opposed to what is being proposed and fully intend to campaign actively for a no vote when a referendum is held in the north-west region.

To proceed with referendums on the basis of a favourable outcome on the minuscule return of a consultation process involving a tiny fraction of the electorate is both absurd and wrong. The decision looks even more bizarre when we remember that neither the few who were consulted, nor the even fewer who bothered to respond, had any detailed knowledge of the make-up of the forms of government that would be put to them in a referendum.

It is clear that while the subject may excite many politicians, the general public appear to be indifferent to the whole idea. Equally, the business community is far from convinced of the benefits of regional government and is concerned about the adverse impact that it could have. I see little in the proposals for regional government that would kindle a spark of enthusiasm in the public or alleviate the concerns of the business community.

Local democracy will be diminished rather than enhanced by the abolition of the county council structure and its replacement by a remote regional assembly. The cost of implementing the changes to local government structures will be enormous and the brunt of the cost—if not all of it—will be borne by local businesses and taxpayers. The Government will no doubt absolve themselves of any responsibility for the cost, on the grounds that it was local people who voted for the changes. While it may be argued that in the longer term the new structures will produce savings through economies of scale, such savings invariably fail to materialise in real life.

What the regions of this country require now is additional resources for regional development, not additional regional government. If political change is required to achieve that, those changes should be made here at Westminster where the power and resources lie. The parliamentary programme should be changed to allow regular specific regional debates and, indeed, regional Question Times. The Government should appoint Ministers with responsibility for the development of a designated region, who can be held to account by the Members of Parliament for that region. That is the direction that we should take towards establishing a stronger, more effective role for the regions.

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I could have mentioned many other issues—the shortage of NHS dentists in my constituency, the need for still more police on the beat and community support officers, and the problems of rogue landlords in seaside towns—but I am aware that many Members wish to speak. I will say no more other than to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a very happy recess and to urge all Members to—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady's time is up.

3.10 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): We heard a refreshing and honest speech from the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), and a characteristically distinguished speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who has consistently represented the interests of his constituents vis-à-vis the future of the defence hospital at Haslar. I recently visited the site with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and I very much hope that it can stay in medical use and that it will be used by the civil population and the military. It is tragic that an institution of such distinction and historic excellence should be put at risk. I trust that wiser counsels will prevail.

I also trust that wiser counsels will prevail in respect of the future of the cancer centre and the burns and plastics unit at Mount Vernon hospital in my constituency. For many years, since the advent in power of this Administration in 1997, I have had cause to come to the House to make speeches about the future of Mount Vernon hospital at Northwood and of Harefield hospital in my constituency. Both are regional specialist hospitals.

The Northwood cancer centre is not just a centre of clinical excellence, but the Gray Cancer Institute, the Lynda Jackson Macmillan centre for cancer care and the Michael Sobell hospice for palliative care for cancer patients are all on the site. It is an integrated facility that is second to none in our part of the country. Furthermore, it takes patients not merely from north-west London but from Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and beyond, as does Harefield hospital. Harefield is a cardio-thoracic centre that has done more heart transplants than any hospital in the world. Yet Her Majesty's Government are prepared to see both institutions so greatly reduced that they will have no significant standing in the future and their services will be transferred elsewhere regardless of the strong desire of patients, staff and local people that they should stay in their present locations, which are ideal.

I will talk about Mount Vernon and, under the parliamentary procedure of the old days, I would have had cause to do so at this very moment. The official consultation on its future is paradoxically being carried out by the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire strategic health authority and it will conclude on 1 September before the House returns after the recess. It is urgent that the arguments to keep the cancer centre where it is be advanced once again.

There has been huge investment over the years, and not just from the national health service. Many generous subscribers and charities have also invested there. I refer to the Gray Cancer Institute, which is funded almost

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entirely from private donations, as is the Restoration of Appearance and Function Trust, RAFT, which does marvellous pioneering work in the disciplines of burns and plastic surgery. Their work is recognised the world over.

It is extraordinary that institutions of such excellence should be run down in favour of mega-hospitals that cost hundreds of millions of pounds and that are based in locations that are less than ideal. They are not ideal for my constituents or those who live in the catchment area currently served by Mount Vernon and by Harefield. Harefield is in a quiet rural village in green belt, but its services are to be transferred to Paddington. If one goes out of the hospital gates at Paddington for one's recuperation, there is a strong likelihood that one will be mugged. That is not the best way to recover.

Let us consider the alternatives to the Mount Vernon cancer centre. One is in Hatfield on a greenfield site that has not even been identified. The other is at Hemel Hempstead, and I see the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) in his place. From my constituents' point of view, it is very remote and hard to reach.

When we had a meeting in the House about the proper place for the cancer centre, the unanimous verdict of those Members present was, with, I think, one exception, that it should be where it is now at Mount Vernon. That was the view of the eminent professors from the Gray laboratory, the clinicians who work at Mount Vernon and tens of thousands of my constituents and others who have signed petitions in favour of Mount Vernon. However, because there is the extraordinary outlook that Whitehall and the NHS know best and that the planners should carry more clout than those who use or work in the service, we are facing a move away, with disastrous consequences for my constituency and an adverse effect on those who have enjoyed the quality of service at Mount Vernon and Harefield. I have never received a complaint about the quality of cancer care at Mount Vernon, so I do not comprehend why the service it provides that should be put at risk.

We carried out an independent study about the relative costs of Harefield and Paddington. The net cost of the transfer of the cardio-thoracic services from Harefield to Paddington was about £135 million as against a cost of £20 million for the cost of modernisation of the existing facilities. The position at Mount Vernon is even more complicated because of the scanners and radiological facilities there.

At long last, the North West London strategic health authority has come into the equation and it has persuaded the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire strategic health authority that the views of north-west Londoners should at least be taken into account. A parallel consultation is going on about the North West London strategic health authority's proposals. However, its proposals are predicated on the recommendations already made by Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. Therefore, all that North West London will say is that some residual cancer services should be retained at Mount Vernon. It has in mind an ambulatory service whereby outpatients can have radiotherapy and chemotherapy at Mount Vernon. It has been argued

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that, because no significant surgical facilities are left on the Mount Vernon site, thanks to the previous depredations of the NHS planners who have moved services to Hillingdon hospital and elsewhere, it is unsafe to maintain cancer treatment in depth at Mount Vernon. In view of the total infrastructure of cancer support and research at Mount Vernon, my argument is that it is infinitely cheaper to bring in additional surgeons as required.

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