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Bob Spink : Will the hon. and learned Lady give way, as she has mentioned my constituency?

Vera Baird: I am delighted to do so.

Bob Spink: I am following the hon. and learned Lady carefully and she is speaking a lot of sense. Shellhaven is a new application, on which the Minister has just put off his decision; we are waiting for that. Part of the Government's difficulty in taking these strategic decisions about the capacity of container ports across the country is the absence of an overall comprehensive strategic plan for the development of container traffic in this country. However, such a plan is very necessary. Will she join me in calling for the Government to develop such a strategic plan, so that we can minimise the number of road miles that this container traffic travels?

Vera Baird: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It seems to me imperative that, rather than looking individually at the three current applications and responding to them on the semi-local basis on which they would normally be dealt with, the Government should put them aside for the time being while a comprehensive strategy emerges. It needs to emerge fast, so that they do not, as it were, hijack the agenda and the strategic development of ports by just granting or not granting individual applications. So I definitely would welcome the hon. Gentleman's support because I intend to ask the Government to look very quickly at the formation of a national ports strategy.

There has been some resistance to expansion in the locations of the southern ports. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in Shellhaven there have been complaints that no more jobs are needed there, and complaints about threats to nature reserves and important historic sites elsewhere. It makes an interesting contrast to my own cry in my local press, where the potential of 7,000 new jobs was offered to Teesside, that this is capable of almost putting an end to our very local unemployment problems—so we have it in a nutshell why some development is urgently needed. It is a rational way to expand ports without having the whole proposition jump-started by the granting of ad hoc consents.
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The Northern Way, a strategy backed by £100 million of development cash, recommends that we introduce a national ports strategy and take the opportunity to expand the share of cargo using the north's ports. Clearly, PD Teesport's planned expansion directly supports that important policy.

The purpose of my speech this afternoon is to say how excited we are in my constituency and in Tees valley by this proposition; to point to the need for a strategy that will permit the careful consideration of where the development emphasis should be; and to put the Government on notice that I and my four colleague MPs in Teesside intend to campaign forcefully for a national ports strategy soon. Because we believe that the business case for Teesport is absolutely clear, our aim is to ensure that this great development—which can reverse, even more fully than the Government's economic stability over the last seven years has done, the decline that my part of the country suffered under the preceding Government, and can be a huge contributor to making the economy of Tees valley much more dynamic—comes about. We shall be campaigning on that for the next few months.

1.27 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): It is a particular pleasure to be able to congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) on extremely fluent and excellent maiden speeches. We all remember the horror and the trauma of having to sit around waiting to make our maiden speeches, but the fluency and effortless ease with which both my hon. Friends spoke suggest that they were either on pills or have nerves of steel that I did not have.

My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield will clearly be a strong voice for that constituency and I am sure that, over very many years, his constituents will benefit from his advocacy of their causes in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, in a very interesting speech, was perhaps a little too modest—characteristically so. He said that there were 3,000 Members of Parliament before he arrived here and there would probably in the next century be another 3,000, and that he would play a small part in the life of this parliamentary system. I think that that is characteristically modest of him because I am sure, from the way he spoke with affection and vigour on behalf of his constituents, he will represent them excellently in all our debates in the coming years.

I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate because I believe it is important, prior to the beginning of the Whitsun recess, that we consider the issues behind a report that was published last week, and which received some notice but not that much. I refer to the Office of Fair Trading report on care homes for older people in the United Kingdom. For every hon. Member, the care of the elderly is of crucial importance and concern.
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We all believe, rightly, that elderly people must live with the dignity, respect and help, where it is needed, that they rightly deserve. Conservative Members also believe— although, certainly in our debates in the last Parliament, certain uncharitable Health Ministers would not give us the credit for it—that the most appropriate type of care should be given to our elderly citizens, and I am sure that Labour Members believe that, too. For many elderly people, domiciliary care in their homes, with a care package, is the most appropriate form of care.

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will relay to the Department of Health the fact that I am disappointed by the latest figures, which were published today. Despite the Government's fervent claims that they are committed to providing domiciliary care, those figures show that although the number of hours of domiciliary care given to individuals has increased, the number of individuals receiving that care has been reduced yet again. That is of concern.

The OFT report raises a number of interesting and important issues that relate to transparency. For many individuals who require residential care, their needs come all of a sudden, possibly as a result of a stay in hospital, and many of them may still be in a confused state or recovering from illness and waiting to leave hospital. They are not always best able to cope and to take what are extraordinarily important decisions about their future life. What they must decide about is the home that they will live in for a number of years—we hope many years—and they and their families may not be in a position of ease and understanding to take the right decision at the time. That is why is it important that as much information as possible is provided to help them—of course, with advice from social services departments and the care homes themselves—to take the decision that is in their best interests for their long-term well-being.

The recommendations in the OFT report must be considered seriously. We do not need a knee-jerk reaction where we must accept everything that is proposed, but we must certainly consider such proposals carefully. We must strike a balance between the nanny state—the immediate instinct of any interfering Government to throw legislation, rules and regulations at everything that is proposed—and what would be a genuine and helpful improvement in the situation that would facilitate people gaining access to more information, so that they could take rational decisions when they have to do so. That is why I urge the Government not to jump on any passing bandwagon and immediately say, "We've got to do this; we've got to do that".

Heaven knows, most of us should have learned during the last general election campaign, when we were communicating with our employers, that the care home sector has been so overburdened during the past eight years by petty regulations and rules and by the need for Ministers to be seen to be doing something that it has crippled the ability of many homes to continue to exist and to provide the services and high-quality care that our elderly population deserves.
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During the past eight years, more than 80,000 beds have been lost in care homes throughout the country. That is a disgrace. It is all right for Ministers to huff and puff, but it is deeply offensive to care home owners and their staff, who work day in, day out to provide the finest quality of care and quality of life for individuals, to hear people such as the former Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), making accusations about elderly people being banged up in care homes, and for a previous junior Health Minister, now the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), echoing his master's voice in the same derogatory terms.

Care home owners are not keeping their client group banged up in care homes; they are seeking to provide the highest quality of care. I am glad that the Deputy Leader of the House nods in agreement. Given that he agrees with that statement, perhaps he would like to have a word with Health Ministers to ensure that such unfortunate slurs on those people who are doing so much good for our elderly population stop being made from the Dispatch Box, so that we have no more of the clap-trap that the right hon. Member for Darlington and the hon. Member for South Thanet echoed from the Dispatch Box during the last Parliament.

In one respect, the OFT report represents a missed opportunity. Sadly, when the OFT announced its investigation, it used very narrow criteria, although the official Opposition urged the OFT to widen its scope at the time. Part of the equation involves looking at how residential care is funded. I do not suggest that we should consider how much residential and social care is funded to the levels in such a report, but we should consider the mechanics because there is a serious problem.

The problem is twofold. First, throughout the country social service departments use, to put it crudely, their bulk purchasing power to tell care homes what price they are prepared to pay per week, per client, and they do so on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. One often finds—particularly with small, family-run homes or medium-sized homes—that what is offered is, at best, equivalent to the actual cost of the care and, at worst, below the actual cost of the care. That does nothing to encourage and enhance the quality of care for those residents. It is wrong that local authorities can adopt that attitude because I should have thought that, among other things, it would be anti-competitive.

We know that the Competition Appeal Tribunal in Belfast looked into this issue two years ago, and it believed that such practices were anti-competitive. Unfortunately, I am not a lawyer, so I do not understand how English Health Ministers can tell me that the decision of the Belfast Competition Appeal Tribunal has no relevance and cannot be translated to mainland England. Something must be done to look into the matter because it is apparently a clear case of anti-competitive practice.

The other problem, which causes considerable confusion and misunderstanding, and which I cannot fathom properly, is that in those areas where social services departments own their own homes, they are more than happy to pay themselves infinitely more money per week, per client than they will pay the private provider to care for a client. The situation in the city of
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Birmingham is a classic case in the extreme. The latest figures that I have, which relate to last year, show that Birmingham social services department was prepared to pay its own residential care homes £775 per resident, per week, but was prepared to pay the independent residential care homes in Birmingham only £310 per week, per resident.

Those figures are extreme, but they are reflected throughout the country, although the gap elsewhere is not so great. However, in Birmingham there is now the wholesale closure of care homes that just cannot continue to provide care at the prices that they are forced to take—or leave, which means closure—because of the decision of Birmingham city council's social services department. That seems odd. There is a shortage of beds in the city in any case, but it has been grossly exacerbated in the past four years because of that policy. How is it that a local authority can find the money to pay its own homes so much, yet claim poverty and refuse to pay more to other care homes? That leads to an even more disturbing knock-on effect, which was highlighted in an editorial in The Times.

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