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Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to remarks that our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made last night on "Newsnight", which appeared to suggest that British forces in southern Iraq are free under certain circumstances, and with the approval of local commanders on the ground, to operate over the border with Iran? That is a serious matter, which, notwithstanding the statement made by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence last week, must be clarified to the House as soon as possible.

Mr. Hoon: I, too, watched "Newsnight" last night, and thought that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary handled a series of extremely difficult and sometimes emotional questions with his usual very considerable skill. I did not interpret his remarks in relation to British soldiers in the way that my hon. Friend does.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Can we have a debate in Government time on the operation and, indeed, the future of the Child Support Agency? It remains the most dysfunctional and chaotic of all Government agencies—we found in the summer recess that for every £1 that it collects, it costs the taxpayer 54p, and that £1 billion of unclaimed maintenance was written off. Surely it is now time to have a root-and-branch reform of the CSA, if not to pull the plug on it.

Mr. Hoon: All Members of Parliament recognise that there are difficulties with the CSA from time to time. All of us, at our routine surgeries and in our mailbags, get regular complaints. Inevitably, we get complaints when problems arise and things go wrong, but that does not
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highlight the way in which the system generally works successfully for most people. Certainly, the Government have taken the matter seriously, and we have reformed significantly the system that we inherited, which was complex and confusing. One of the challenges for the CSA today is to ensure that those older cases are transferred to the new arrangements, because only by having those simpler, more straightforward arrangements can the system work much more effectively for everyone. That is to be taken seriously.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend read about the excellent "Stamp It Out" campaign launched by The Sun? It draws attention to the amount of cruelty to domestic animals in Britain—animals that are tortured and often killed. Is it not time we had a debate in which to discuss how that cruelty can be ended, and how it can be ensured that the penalty fits the crime?

Mr. Hoon: I too saw the front page of that newspaper this morning, and I think that the campaign is extremely important. The pictures were truly shocking and revolting. That is why the Government take so seriously their responsibility to deal with cruelty to animals.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I make no apology for repeating the comments on NHS funding made by my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller).

Two weeks ago, 34,000 people—constituting no less than 49 per cent. of all patients registered with NHS dentists in the Greater Peterborough primary care partnership area—were deregistered and told that they could no longer receive NHS treatment. The area crosses my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). When will the Leader of the House arrange a proper debate on the enormous crisis that is developing in NHS dentistry? It is having a major impact on poorer families and older people throughout the country, not just in my constituency.

Mr. Hoon: We have been addressing that as a matter of urgency. I apologise for not having up-to-date figures in my head, but the July figures showed that there were about 400 new NHS dentists who were trained as available to the service. That number was expected to increase to 1,000 by the end of the year.

I recognise that there are problems in a number of parts of the country, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. That is why we are taking urgent action to ensure that new dentists are available to the service.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend surprised or concerned at the fact that the Adam Smith Institute has enthusiastically embraced the latest NHS shake-up, saying that it will provide huge opportunities for the private sector? Will he comment on the fact that the proposals were published not on the last day of term, 21 July, but on 28 July?
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It would be a scandal if we did not have a proper, considered debate on the huge structural changes that the Government are about to introduce.

Mr. Hoon: I should have thought that my hon. Friend and other Members—indeed, anyone who approves of NHS reforms—would welcome changes that are having a measurable impact on the lives of my hon. Friend's constituents, my constituents and every other constituent in the country. Waiting times are being reduced, the way in which treatment is made available is being improved, and more treatment is being made available in new hospitals and new wards. That strikes me as an outstanding success, and if any organisation welcomes those changes and reforms I shall be delighted to join it in the fold.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Under the last Conservative Government, there were many NHS dentists in Wellingborough. Under the present Government, my constituents must go out of the county to obtain treatment.

Let me reinforce what other Members have said. May we please have a debate, or at least an answer to the question of why we are not being allowed a debate on a serious policy change that amounts effectively to the privatisation of dentistry in my constituency?

Mr. Hoon: As I made clear in response to an earlier question, the Government have recognised the importance of making NHS dentists available across the country, and have taken urgent action to ensure both more training and more recruitment. I gave the figures earlier, and I do not intend to repeat them, but significantly more dentists are available to the NHS since 1997. Given that picture, I find it puzzling that the hon. Gentleman should persist in suggesting that there is a continuing crisis.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Given the importance that the House ascribes to international development and the work of the Department for International Development, is it not time that we extended the half hour allotted to DFID questions to a full hour, thus giving international development the same status as other Cabinet responsibilities? Will my right hon. Friend look into that anomaly as matter of urgency?

Mr. Hoon: Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the tremendous work done in the past few days by officials from the Department for International Development, assisted by Foreign Office officials, in responding to the earthquake in south Asia. They were able to move equipment and people within a very short time to help in the emergency. Certainly no Minister doubts the importance of DIFD's work, and I will consider my hon. Friend's suggestion carefully.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): During the recess, a major crisis has developed in our prisons. Overcrowding appears to be leading to the early release and tagging of a significant number of prisoners who pose a potential danger to the public and would not
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otherwise be released. In those circumstances, is it not essential for the Home Secretary to make a statement in the House very soon?

Mr. Hoon: I expected that question, in view of the publicity given to it this morning.

I still need to identify some practical issues, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman of two things. First, there is existing capacity in the prison system. We have still to establish whether there are specific problems in certain parts of the country as a result of administrative difficulties, but overall there are still places for prisoners. Secondly, no one has been released early as a result of any overcrowding. That simply is not the case.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the dismay that will be felt in Lincolnshire at the complacent way in which he has refused to arrange a debate on the NHS? Is he aware that in the hospitals of Lincoln, Grantham and elsewhere in the county, a number of wards are being closed and jobs are being lost? Is he also aware that NHS dentistry has ceased to exist for most Lincolnshire residents?

Mr. Hoon: I simply do not accept the picture that the right hon. and learned Gentleman paints—although I recall Members of the then Opposition before 1997 making precisely the same observations about ward closures. The answer given then was that there had been a significant change in the way in which people were treated, and that is the case now. People no longer spend as much time in hospital as they once did; people are no longer even required to go to hospital for out-patient treatment to the extent that they once were. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that we do not need the same number of wards.

I urge the right hon. and learned Gentleman to look at the figures. It is clear that more patients are being treated and more conditions being dealt with, and that the overall service provided by the NHS has significantly improved.

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