Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman's point about the pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians is well made and well taken. However, he is developing a novel line of argument

26 Nov 2003 : Column 39

when he suggests that the Government have understated their case. Can he explain, for my benefit and that of the House, why the massive increase in expenditure on the health service has not been matched by a corresponding increase in clinical activity?

Mr. Purchase: We have heard, both today and on previous Wednesdays, the Prime Minister setting out the figures line by line, and I shall not repeat them today. The increases in clinical activity have been set out, too, and are clear for all who use the health service to see. No matter what politicians tell people, in the end it is the evidence of their own experience and their own eyes that counts most. My constituents certainly recognise that the health service in Wolverhampton has improved, is improving and is likely to continue to improve. More people are receiving treatment more speedily. Episodes are not recurring as often as previously and infections are down. It is extremely important that people are not sent home from hospital too quickly, otherwise another episode follows. Real improvements have been made.

I repeat that throughout my life I have seen improvements in the health service every year, some driven by medical technology and improved medicines. That must be matched by the political will to see the advances in technology incorporated in everyday medicine in our national health service. The question put by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is answered in full, and he can look forward to that answer being given again, again and again. He need have no concerns.

Even under the Conservative Government, advances were made in the national health service. Regardless of Government, there have been advances in terms of the will, the understanding and the hard work of the people who live in this country. I am proud to be part of that. Politics can drive things on faster to produce better quality all round.

There is another reason why it is important to re-establish such connections. Hon. Members may have read a newspaper article about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who is not in the Chamber, where a little vox pop was carried out. It showed that, despite an improving built environment, people made no connection between that and the tens of millions of pounds from the Government, through capital permissions, credits or investments. They made no connection between their improving physical environment and the work that their money—from their taxes—was actually doing for them. At one time, those connections were strong, but they seem to be getting weaker and it is important that we strengthen them.

I want to deal with only two or three of the measures in the Queen's Speech, as I realise that others want to speak. The first is employment. With the indulgence of the House, I shall read from an email sent to me by one of my constituents recently:

which is adjacent to my constituency—

26 Nov 2003 : Column 40

was invited to discuss those matters.

The year is 2003, and we have had no end of industrial and employment relations legislation, so how can a man—I know him personally—with 30 years in industry, a skilled craftsman, be dismissed in such appalling circumstances? In part, it is because the company was small: it had fewer than 20 employees, so it did not have to give notification, as only a small number of people were being made redundant. However, if our Government—my Government—are to introduce more legislation on employment relations, provisions on such matters should be an important aspect of it.

I can recall many arguments in this place about small companies. I am a champion of small companies and understand the need for them to prosper without being burdened by red tape and difficulties, but to dismiss someone with three and a half days' notice is no way to treat a man or a woman who has been employed for such a long time.

Mr. Redwood: Does the hon. Gentleman think that his proposal should extend to Ministers of the Crown? Perhaps there should be a yellow card system, and perhaps the Prime Minister should not have the right to sack Ministers for a first offence.

Mr. Purchase: The right hon. Gentleman makes his point in a gentle way, and I am grateful for that. Hon. Members come into the House knowing that the rules of the game mean that our leader can dispense with our services very quickly. However, we are not dismissed from employment. We remain in employment until the great electorate say otherwise. Ministers get top-up fees, if I may use that phrase, but that is of secondary importance, as our main job here is to represent the people of our constituencies. Ultimately, they alone have the right to dismiss us as party representatives. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I believe that I have rebutted it quite well, as I often do.

Mr. Redwood: That is for us to decide.

Mr. Purchase: Yes, of course.

The question of employment should exercise all hon. Members. The country depends on the efforts of people who go to work and produce the money that the Government can tax to meet the costs of vital services. We cannot do too much for the workers: that old saying remains true. I urge the Government, in respect of the employment relations Bill, to take the needs of workers in smaller companies fully into account, as well as the needs of people whose employment prospects are treated somewhat roughly.

I turn now to housing. My local council is currently recommending that its housing stock be transferred to what is called an arm's-length management

26 Nov 2003 : Column 41

organisation. That may be all well and good, but I cannot find out what real benefits ALMOs provide. I have asked many questions of Ministers, but their answers are all equally difficult to understand. I cannot determine whether council house tenants who vote for their homes to be transferred to an ALMO will get any long-term financial benefits.

This is a very important matter, because local authority housing at not-for-profit rents has formed the basis of public health in this country since the first Act passed after the end of the second world war. For the first time, the Government were prepared to build houses for general need and not just for the working classes.

Council housing has made an enormous contribution to the public health of this country. It must not be cast aside lightly. Any improvement is fine, but we need to know that ALMOs and housing stock transfers, for instance, will bring benefits. We also need to know whether such innovations meet the demands of ordinary tenants who want to be able to live their lives peacefully in the comfort of their own homes. They want rent collection or payment to be convenient, and to have their houses repaired when necessary. When they need to move house, they want to be able to do so.

Those are the basics, but the transfer of housing stock to ALMOs—whose managers will be people who have transferred from local authority housing departments—will not bring obvious material benefits for tenants. From the answers that I have received from Ministers, I do not believe that there will be long-term financial benefits, either.

Although top-up fees are bound to be controversial, I found no other reference in the Queen's Speech to education in general. I am especially concerned that secondary schools should be developed within a comprehensive framework. I am not sure that my Government continue to share the comprehensive vision for secondary education that has long been Labour party policy. I hear what is said—that it is intended to extend and widen opportunity for greater choice in secondary education, but it is schools that exercise choice, not the parents and the pupils. Children must pass the 11-plus—we still have it in my area—for the girls' high school, which is a very good school with excellent results, or the boys' grammar, which is independent and also has excellent results, but it is the schools that choose the students, not the parents who exercise choice. We have not widened choice but narrowed it, and that has built on the work carried out by the Conservative Government in their final term of office.

I want to see a return to Labour values, with equal opportunities for all secondary education students to take the subjects that suit them, at a time that is right for them, bearing in mind the fact that the maturation of young men and women occurs at varying rates, depending on the individual. We need appropriate education in a comprehensive setting, in which children who push ahead or fall a little behind receive an appropriate education in an all-in school. I am not sure that the Labour party that I joined, which had high hopes and broad visions for secondary comprehensive education, is the same party any more. We have to address the issues raised by the introduction of specialist schools and more and more testing, and the suggestion

26 Nov 2003 : Column 42

that teachers cannot be trusted. I want Labour to form the next Government. To do that, we will have to have the trust of teachers, parents and students, many of whom will be voters in the next general election. We need to rethink how we structure secondary education, because that is vital for our future.

Overall, the programme that we have set out will be a good one. We need to prosecute it properly and ensure that people understand it. That will mean using language that is accessible. By attending to some of the crucial issues that I have raised—other hon. Members will know of others from their constituency experience—we may yet win the trust of the people and re-engage them in the political process.

Next Section

IndexHome Page