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The other parts of the public services about which we are all concerned are our hospitals and schools. Oxfordshire's hospitals, in comparison with much of the country, are under severe financial pressure. Nothing in the Queen's Speech will address that. In May, I held a public meeting to establish an action committee to keep my local hospitalthe Hortona general hospital. The campaign is supported by members of all political parties in north Oxfordshire and by members of the local community, and it seeks reassurance that services will not be removed from the Horton general hospital to downgrade it gradually.
In May 2003, it was suggested that mortuary services were to be closed at the Horton. Only two months later, we saw the reduction of paediatric care at the hospital, with the loss of two consultant paediatricians and a freeze on staff replacement. The same month, it was announced that the viability of the nighttime accident and emergency service, nighttime emergency surgery, nighttime trauma treatment and nighttime maternity is now in question. Indeed, only last night the local action committee met again on that matter. I am told that there are no details of what services at the Horton will be part of the health plan review, because no services have been identified. Then we get three announcements that services are planned to be removed from the Horton. Is it seriously suggested that the removal of those services is separate from the health plan review for the Horton?
It is clear that a comprehensive review of health services in Oxfordshire is now needed, but to make the health system in the county a success, funding will have to be forthcoming from the Government. As matters stand, Oxfordshire's hospitals have little chance of the independent financial status for foundation hospitals that the Government introduced in last year's Queen's Speech. If Ministers cannot deliver on the proposals for public services made in previous Queen's Speeches, that means little optimism locally for anything different this time around. Indeed, given the situation with the Horton hospital and the Bicester community hospital, my constituents will find hollow indeed the words in the Queen's Speech about giving
The Queen's Speech makes significant proposals for higher education. I have mentioned those that the Labour party's manifesto said would not be introduced. It will be interesting to see how the Labour party will square the social exclusion that such proposals are likely to cause with its supposed championing of social inclusion elsewhere.
In pre-university education, little encouragement is being given to schools. The Government have made a total dog's breakfast of schools funding, and the situation is all the more disappointing because this year Oxfordshire has had the benefit of damping worth £4.7 million. It will not receive that next year, so it will effectively have a standstill budget, which will make the school funding situation much worse.
The confusion over school funding this year was characterised by the fact that almost at the last moment the Learning and Skills Council came up with an additional sum for some schools in Oxfordshire with sixth forms, based on their ability to secure high attendance levels from sixth-form pupils. Obviously that money was welcomed by those schools that benefited, but the House will agree that it was farcical that such an announcement came so late in the day and after many of the schools concerned had agonised for some time about whether they had to make staff redundant.
It was also disappointing that this year the Government chose to seek to blame everyone but themselves for the chaos in school funding. First, they blamed local education authorities, such as Oxfordshire, when it was clear that they had passed through to schools every single penny they could. Then we had the unedifying spectacle of Ministers seeking to blame the schools for the financial position that they found themselves in.
None of this blame game helps with morale or helps to resolve the situation. Given last year's chaos, I very much hope that this coming year Ministers will make every possible effort to ensure that local education authorities know at the earliest possible opportunitythe exact funds that they will receive, and that schools know all the funding that they might receive from all possible sourcesnot only from the LEA but from organisations such as the Learning and Skills Councilat the earliest possible opportunity, so that when they set their budgets they can be confident as to the exact amount that they will receive.
The Government are introducing proposals on pensions, but I suspect that, as has been said, most of my constituents are concerned not about those new proposals but about how they will manage on their existing pension. They are concerned about the fact that many of them are not getting all the various benefits and credits that they should, because the system has become so involved. Also many pensioners are really concerned about the fact that any pension increase that they receive is eaten away by higher council taxes and other burdens. A constituent wrote to me the other day, and the letter summarised the feelings of many of my constituents. It said that
Tom Levitt: I can barely recognise the situation that the hon. Gentleman is describing. I will not go into education funding, but I do remember the cuts and cuts under the Tory Government. However, on pensions, I strongly recommend his constituents to ring 0800 99
Tony Baldry: It is a really sad situation when our constituents who are pensioners have to start ringing freephone numbers to see whether they are eligible for particular benefits. I very much hope that during part of this so-called national conversation, Labour Members and others will go down some streets in their constituency and discover just how much increased poverty has come about because so many pensioners now can survive only on means-tested benefits. Indeed, huge numbers of peoplenot only pensioners but those who receive the working families tax credit and othersare being drawn into the benefit system, and pensioners in particular find that unpalatable and difficult.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): While my hon. Friend is on the subject of broken Government promises, does he remember that before the 1997 general election the current Chancellor of the Exchequer was promising to end means-testing altogether for pensioners?