Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Miller: The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point from his experience of the case of his constituent. If the Government were to introduce such a Bill, would it have his support?

Tony Baldry: Of course it would have my support, and that is why I regret that it did not appear in the Gracious Speech.

A report yesterday in the Financial Times observed that

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 several companies, as anyone who consults the Register of Members' Interests 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 understand from Simon Jones's parents, who have campaigned tirelessly to change the law, that fines for poor safety are to be reduced: if there is to be a deterrent, this legislation will clearly have to be it.

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 hospital—the Horton—a 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.

The public meeting was attended by the then chief executive of the Oxford Radcliffe hospitals trust. Local people in Banbury and I were given reassurances that

26 Nov 2003 : Column 66

there was no hidden plan to close or downgrade the Horton and that managers would look for ways of treating people closer to home. I later met with senior NHS managers and was given assurances that no details were available of what services were being reviewed as part of the health plan being developed at the Horton. To put it simply, there was no review of removing services taking place at the Horton. That was in May 2003. Since then not a week has gone by without further suggestions for removing services from the Horton to the John Radcliffe. That is leaving local people with the feeling that they have been deceived by Oxford Radcliffe hospitals trust.

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

They see little choice when promised community hospitals disappear and services are taken away from their general hospital.

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.

26 Nov 2003 : Column 67

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 sources—not only from the LEA but from organisations such as the Learning and Skills Council—at 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

I very much hope that when Ministers are having a "national conversation" they will have a conversation with pensioners and others, and discover their true circumstances.

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

26 Nov 2003 : Column 68

1234 to see whether they can get up to £30 a week extra on the pension credit, which many of my constituents are getting and enjoying.

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 people—not only pensioners but those who receive the working families tax credit and others—are 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?

Next Section

IndexHome Page