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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): It has been interesting to listen to the thoughtful contributions made by a number of Members. The debate was begun by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), and I thank her for praising the Government's education strategy, the great efforts of schools, teachers, head teachers, students and carers, and the success of academies. The even-handed nature of her praise should be recognised. She spoke in favour of Lord Harris's support for the programme, and she acknowledged that funding for schools in her area has risen by £1,300 per pupil since 1997.

My hon. Friend told us that local people have overwhelmingly endorsed and sought a new city academy in Mitcham Vale and Tamworth Manor, and that it has been rejected not by the council, which is a minority Labour council, but by colleagues of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) who serve on the council. They are attempting to put off the decision until next year and beyond—against the wishes of the community and of Conservative private sponsors such as Lord Harris.

Mrs. May: The Deputy Leader of the House may not have heard me, but I said just now that the official survey of opinion showed that the ratio of people opposing the plans was 4:1.

Nigel Griffiths: To correct the record, the survey of parents most affected conducted by the schools showed that they supported the plans by 2:1. The wider group contained people who may not be directly affected.
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The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised a long list of issues, as usual. He began with comments on the Post Office card account, but he and other Opposition Members peddled so much misinformation that I am sure that the House will be grateful for the full facts. The Government are spending £1 billion of public money on funding the Post Office card contract until 2010. It is one of 25 accounts that people can use to access their pensions and benefits, although I understand that some of the others may be cheaper. I urge all consumers of Post Office services to look at all the available accounts, but assure them that the present card account will run for another four years in any case.

I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will join me in encouraging local councils to follow Edinburgh's example in ensuring that as many council services as possible are paid through local post offices. That includes the business portion of the council tax, domestic council tax bill, rents and other service and environmental charges. I hope too that he will urge people to reject the position adopted by Liberal Democrat councils such as Aberdeen, which has steadfastly refused to fund residents in using those accounts. The consequence is that more post offices have closed in Aberdeen than anywhere else in the country. Moreover, that council's approach may be one reason why Edinburgh's Councillor Longstaffe, an erstwhile Liberal Democrat, deserted that party this week and joined the Labour party.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome spoke about homelessness, a topic that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House dealt with in business questions. However, if the hon. Gentleman needs further amplification, he should realise that the poorest providers of public housing in this country are Liberal Democrat councils. For example, Inverclyde council has been branded by the Accounts Commission in Scotland as the most incompetent authority, and closer to home Lambeth council has been an absolute shambles. There, the Liberal Democrat executive member responsible for housing, Councillor Fitchett, has been forced out after almost a year in office because a fraudster was allowed to get away with £3 million. For seven months, he had clung on to his executive title and £15,000 special allowance, but the people of Lambeth finally drove him out without waiting for the elections later in the summer. That is hardly surprising, but it is rather typical.

When we consider the problems posed to senior citizens by local councils, our best advice is that they should compare the average council tax levied per dwelling by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative authorities. They will find that the average under Labour is the lowest by a considerable margin.

Mr. McLoughlin: The Deputy Leader of the House mentioned Lambeth council. Its Labour leader sent a leaflet to my door saying that he and his colleagues would be pressing the Chancellor and the Government to reduce pensioners' council tax burden. The Chancellor had the opportunity last week, but refused to do so. What message does the hon. Gentleman have for that Labour councillor?

Nigel Griffiths: I remind the hon. Gentleman that when Labour controlled the council the average council
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tax was £810, whereas now under the Liberal Democrats it is £1,130. So I advise people to listen to the advice of the Labour leader on the council and vote for him in the council elections.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised the serious issue of the availability of Herceptin for the treatment of breast cancer. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made it clear that local trusts must not refuse to fund Herceptin for women with HER2-positive early-stage breast cancer solely on cost. They need to take account of the complete range of factors before they make such a decision while the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is carrying out an appraisal of this unapproved drug using the fast-track process. No one has successfully challenged that approach in court, although an appeal is pending.

I have a copy of the letter that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), wrote to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. She spelt out clearly to him in paragraph 5 relating to his constituent that

Mr. Heath: I am pleased that we have got away from the pre-local election nonsense and that the Minister has started answering points made in the debate. It is impossible to debate with the hon. Gentleman the details of a constituent's case, but I make three points. First, it was not an early-stage cancer; it was a stage 3 cancer. Secondly, the Minister appears to have sight of a letter that has not yet reached me—I am glad to know that it is on its way. Thirdly, the individual's clinician had clearly recommended this course of treatment and it had been turned down by the hospital authorities.

Nigel Griffiths: I am sorry to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but if he reads the letter, the Minister says in paragraph 2 that stage 3 breast cancer is considered to be early-stage breast cancer. There is no point in bandying the details of an individual case. We all want the person to get the best treatment available. We wish the hon. Gentleman's constituent the best chances of recovery and the best treatment possible. I make no criticism of the hon. Gentleman for raising the case of a constituent. I merely point out the facts that the House will want to have presented to it.

Bob Spink: Will the Minister give way?

Nigel Griffiths: I shall make some progress. I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman directly in a minute, I hope.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the position in Iraq. There is much in Iraq that has improved. There has been an underpinning move to democracy, two successful elections and a constitutional referendum. The council of representatives met a fortnight ago. It was elected by 70 per cent. of the electorate. It is
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good that 4 million more Iraqis have access to potable water than before, and that 9.6 million of them have access to a sewerage system. There were no sewerage or working waste water plants operating before the intervention. That    was another legacy of 20 years of Saddam's warmongering, brutal repression, mismanagement and chronic underinvestment. The Secretary of State for Defence does not hesitate to keep the House apprised of developments in Iraq as and when necessary.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) made a thoughtful contribution. He stressed the vital need for the closest co-operation between social services departments and PCTs. I welcome the offer that he made to look at Swindon hosting a pilot project. I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responds to him on it.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised several issues, including police reorganisation, to which other Members also referred. No one doubts the need for modern, effective police forces to tackle terrorism and crime—the drug dealing and the Mr. Bigs. The current 43-force structure is 30 years old. I reject the claim that there is no need for change, as does the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which states:

Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumbria and Durham have drawn up voluntary merger proposals. In February, Durham's chief constable, Jon Stoddart praised the review, saying:

Last week, the Home Secretary announced four merger proposals, for the south-east, the eastern region, the east midlands and Yorkshire and Humber. A statutory four-month consultation period is under way and HMIC has identified savings that will, it states, dwarf any initial start-up costs. Of course, we have to ensure that disruption is minimised in carrying out those proposals.

The hon. Member for Castle Point raised concerns about the Thames Gateway initiative. We recognise the importance of infrastructure for housing and job growth. We support the principles of the sustainable development communities plan, which is why there is £6 billion-worth of Government investment covering the past three years and the next financial year. Although he and other Members attack demands for new homes, his constituents and others want local housing for their sons and daughters. When people's marriages break up, they want to be housed locally near their jobs and families. They can hardly be expected to move hundreds of miles away—from Castle Point to Castle Douglas. The Government, the hon. Gentleman, as a local MP, and his local authorities will have to reach an agreement on a sustainable number of homes to meet that need. Otherwise, he will have to face his constituents and tell them why they have to stay in marriages in unsustainable conditions, or why their grown-up children will have to continue to live at home.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) focused on two main issues. He mentioned the lower rates of business tax, which I warmly endorse. The whole House supports the Chancellor's decision to reduce corporation tax from
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33 to 30 per cent., small business tax from 23 to 19 per cent., and capital gains tax on long-term assets from 40p to 10p in the pound. As my hon. Friend said, he welcomes what has been done for his local businesses, some of which are among the 554,000 new businesses that have been created.

My hon. Friend stressed the need for energy conservation, a cause that he has championed for much of his working life. He will share my pride that 2 million more homes have been insulated over the past eight years and that 250,000 homes will receive subsidies for insulation within two years. He mentioned his support for the £50 million allocated for microgeneration technologies, which will help 25,000 homes and businesses to generate their own renewable energy, and for the far bigger sum—£1 billion—for a new energy and environmental research institute.

The Chancellor's fiscal policies have contributed to all those measures, and include the climate change levy, which I have yet to hear the Opposition endorse. None the less, my hon. Friend presses the Government to do more and I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will heed his call.

It was a pleasure to hear the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire. Of course, I welcome him to his fairly new elevation to the post of Government Chief Whip—[Hon. Members: "He will be soon!"]—Opposition Chief Whip. I thought that, if anyone broke the mould of silence falling on Chief Whips, he would do so, and he has not disappointed me.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the resurfacing of the A50. I am aware, as he said, that he has been in regular contact with the Department for Transport on the issue, and he quoted from his correspondence. For reasons of which I think he is aware, the Department decided not to continue with that programme of replacing lengths of road surface with concrete in advance of normal maintenance requirements, primarily because of the pressure on budgets and for safety reasons. The Department must ensure that there is adequate funding for routine surface renewal schemes. I appreciate the disappointment felt by the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents. However, when the A50 requires maintenance and resurfacing, I am assured that a quieter surface will be used as a matter of course.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned his regret at the overturning of a stop order on a local quarry. Again, I will ensure that his observations are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

On farming payments, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made clear her anger that the payment procedure was not being honoured in the way she wished. When the chief executive reported to her that, on his latest reassessment, he and his agency would be unable to make the payments, she took the decision that that was wholly unacceptable. She took the action that the House would expect her to take. The chief executive was removed, and the leadership has been strengthened to find out whether the payments can be made within an acceptable time. She made her views very clear that the
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situation was quite unacceptable and recognised the problems. It is to be hoped that those payments will be made as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made a thoughtful contribution about providing health care for a population of about 130,000, especially at a time when previously unimaginable advances have been made in medical technology. That involves massive investment in state-of-the-art technology and ever-larger teams of the highest skilled people to carry out the treatments and operations that are now necessary. Speaking from my constituency experience, even with a population of 500,000, problems can be generated in getting the critical mass. In fact, I come from a rural area, so I know better than many that the issue is how we ensure that the critical mass is achieved and the proper resources provided. The hon. Gentleman argued that more money should be put into the issue. It is a common cause, and more money has indeed been devoted to health care, but we now need to work in a bipartisan or tri-partisan way to consider the problems of such areas, including how close to home people's needs must be serviced.

To echo the words of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, there is no reason why Members of Parliament should not take up any issue with the chief executive and chairman of their local strategic health authority. In my 19 years as a Member of Parliament and in the seven years before that, when I served on a local health council, I have met chairmen and chief executives of health authorities of every and no political complexion. I have always told them to be plain with me, and still do, and I expect them to focus on the interests of the people they serve—in the case of chairs, mostly in a voluntary capacity; in the case of chief executives, I hope as consummate professionals. I know that the whole House will urge the hon. Member for Isle of Wight's local health officials to be frank and honest with him since he is quite clearly very capable of articulating their concerns at the highest level.

The hon. Gentleman lamented the loss of 200 staff. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to know the details of that because thousands of nurses and doctors have been provided in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight strategic health authority area in the past nine years and it is important that it balances its budgets as others have done. It is one of the sad facts in relation to the present financial outlook of the minority of health authorities that some 50 per cent. of the overspending is accounted for by only 6 per cent. of them. I urge them to look at health authorities that are able to bring in their services on budget, at a very high level, meeting local demands.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of dentists. Not only have we increased investment in dental schools and dental education by more than 30 per cent., to ensure even better value for money we have increased the number of dental students by 34 per cent. The facts about the number of dentists are also clear. There are 4,600 more dentists now practising in the general dental service and the personal dental service than in 1997. Adult registrations with dentists fell by 1 million between 1992 and 1997, but under this Government they have increased by 1 million. The demand is ever greater and the budget to meet it is great too. Some 17.7 million people are now on the lists of our dentists. It is with some
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regret that I tell the House that the trend in the number of NHS dentists reducing their commitment to the NHS—it started well before this Government came into power, as those dentists did more and more private work—has not been reversed.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome might be interested to know that the money for his local health service—I think that he mentioned Bath—and his local hospital, in terms of the £1.3 million for the purchase of land and for fees, is secure. There is some £12 million for initial funding, as well. I gather that the full business case is already being prepared.

I join the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) in congratulating the women's rugby team on achieving the grand slam—a terrific achievement. He also raised the issue of Kosovo. As the House will know, I chaired the Scottish charities' Kosovo appeal, which was charged by the UN with rebuilding some 8,000 homes in Kosovo. Although I completely endorse what he says about the criminal wilful damage to churches and monasteries, I know that he will join me in condemning the damage that I saw, when I went in shortly after Kosovo was liberated, to the mosques and other buildings, too. I also know that he will want to praise and get an up-to-date report from David Blunt, who is our Foreign Office highest representative there, and his colleagues on the present position. I hope that we can ensure that a copy of those comments is passed to him. We want to ensure that the intervention, which I am convinced saved 250,000 lives, in contrast to the failure to intervene in the previous decade, allows the country to be rebuilt properly.

The hon. Member also spoke about the North West London strategic health authority. He asked for extra money and raised the plight of his cancer hospital. My colleagues will read his comments with concern and interest.

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