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1.48 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I, too, have one or two issues to raise in this Adjournment debate. Although they are based on constituency examples, each one is part of a national trend. I am sure that hon. Members present will nod in recognition of the issue that they too have in their constituency. They may disagree on how to deal with the problem, but almost everyone present will share it.

The first one is in connection with the national health service. Tomorrow I have my usual Friday afternoon constituency surgery. One of the people who has booked in to see me is a ward sister from Chesterfield’s Royal hospital. She is one of 133 people in her position at the hospital who were summoned in on Tuesday last week to be told by hospital management that their jobs were being restructured and that they could all reapply for them, but that over the next few months one third of them would lose their jobs. In short, 43 ward sisters are going to be made redundant. The hospital is well run, and hopes to manage the process without too much stress and pain by absorbing the cuts in its normal nursing staff turnover of 8 per cent. a year, through natural wastage and turnover rather than compulsory redundancies, although in the end that method may have to be used. None the less, 43 ward sisters will lose their jobs in Chesterfield over the next year.

The hospital is undertaking a similar exercise by making an analysis of other staff sectors to try to shed jobs to save money. The House can imagine the trauma facing 133 ward sisters who have been told that a third of them will lose their jobs and that more job cuts will follow in other parts of the hospital.

Why is the hospital in that position? It seems to have done everything that the Government wanted since 1997. The hospital became a trust. I do not support trusts; I opposed the hospital’s move to trust status at the time, for the same reasons as I opposed the concept of school trusts in the Education and Inspections Bill. Introducing free-market, cut-throat competition is not the way to improve or deliver health services or to educate our children. However, my local hospital became a trust, as the Government wanted, and it has been incredibly successful.

In each of the past three years, the hospital was awarded three stars by the Government—the top rating. Last year, it was also commended as the top hospital in the east midlands—the best in five counties. Since 1997, it has done everything that the Government wanted, so the job losses that are being imposed are not the fault of the hospital management nor of the excellent NHS staff who are hitting every target, even after the introduction of competition. The chief executive told me recently about the worry of losing patients to NHS providers elsewhere and to private sector treatment centres such as the one at Barlborough, just outside my constituency.

The hospital has made further improvements in departments that were already doing extremely well, such as ophthalmology. It can now treat more patients,
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to the benefit of the Chesterfield Royal but at the expense of other hospitals in the area which will lose patients and income, and thus face even greater problems, which is why I opposed trusts in the first place.

The hospital has done everything it was asked, and done it extremely well, yet now people will have to be sacked, and services for the people of Chesterfield will be reduced. Why? The hospital was expecting a cut of 1.7 per cent. in the tariff for providing medical services; in effect, that was the Gershon efficiency review saving that public bodies in general, including my local council, were expected to make on a yearly basis. However, at the last minute the calculations were abandoned and the Government told the hospital that the tariff reduction, or the cut in funding, would be2.5 per cent. Even worse than that last-minute increase in the deficit, the hospital was told that there would be a special technical adjustment to the tariff of another 2.5 per cent. In the space of only three or four weeks, a good, well-funded, well-organised and efficient hospital went from planning for a managed efficiency saving of 1.7 per cent. to trying to cope with a 5 per cent. cut in its funding.

That situation has been mirrored across the country, on a much bigger scale in some areas. Figures released today show that 12,000 job losses have been announced in the NHS since 1 March alone, which makes the 43 announced so far in Chesterfield look quite small, although it is no comfort to those who are losing their jobs in Chesterfield that health trusts elsewhere, including areas close to Derbyshire, are suffering much greater losses imposed at only a few weeks’ notice.

The situation is the result of the Government’s rushed introduction of market-based competition and their insistence on hospitals hitting centrally imposed targets on waiting lists, whatever the financial cost. Trusts are reaping the whirlwind because they have overspent in various sectors to enable the Government to hit their targets. Reform has been forced through at breakneck pace to hit the appropriate media headlines and to help create the Prime Minister’s legacy.

The same is happening in other parts of the NHS, such as dentistry. A stream of people have visited my constituency surgeries or written to me over recent months to tell me that it is impossible to find a dental practice in Chesterfield that will take on new NHS patients. After the introduction of the new contract, several dentists have completely opted out and no longer treat NHS patients. About half the people of Chesterfield were not enrolled with an NHS dentist and the figures have got worse over the past two months. It appears that they will get even worse over the next year. Again, that situation is common throughout the country.

It is time for a long-term, sensible planning regime in the health service, rather than emergency cuts. We should put a brake on this disastrous process and pause a while to consider what is being done to the NHS. Meanwhile, NHS staff in Chesterfield and elsewhere need reassurance about the job losses they face at present, and those in the pipeline for later in the year, which threaten them even though they are absolutely blameless and have done everything asked of them by the Government.

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Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the NHS tariff. Does he think that there should be a common tariff across the country or should the costs of operations vary from one hospital to another? It seems sensible to have the same costs throughout the country. Does he agree?

Paul Holmes: There are different costs in different parts of the country, although there is weighting in the system to take account of wage rates; for example, in London and Derbyshire. There must be some variations. The point I was making is that NHS reforms must be carefully planned to ensure stability. In Germany, where the health service took a similar road, the process took 18 years, yet we are trying to do it in no more than 18 months. To make the NHS—the largest single employer in Europe—a more efficient organisation, we need to look at local accountability and decision making rather than jumping at the behest of centrally imposed targets from Whitehall. That is not the way to run the health service, the police service, the Home Office or many other Departments of State.

Council housing is a major issue in my constituency, as it is in many parts of the country, although it takes different guises, because, as a result of Government policy, many councils no longer control it. Every week, people contact my surgery or my Chesterfield office about the problems of finding social housing. Two age extremes typify the problem. There are young families with children who want a house. They may be living with parents or friends and as children come along the situation becomes impossible. They may be living in one-bedroom council flats on the first or second floor, which is wholly unsuitable for children, so they want a family house. They cannot afford to buy or rent in the private sector so they want a council house.

At the other age extreme are pensioners or people approaching pensionable age. They may be living in council flats. I know one couple who were the first occupants of a brand new flat on a new council estate in the early 1960s. They still live there, but their flat is on the top floor, so what was suitable for them when they were young—they had no children—is no longer suitable now that they are in their 70s. They suffer from arthritis and they have noisy young neighbours with a different lifestyle. They want to move to an old people’s bungalow.

The problem for the council is that it no longer has bungalows or family houses to offer. Were it not for the right-to-buy policy, Chesterfield would have 19,000 council properties; there are actually fewer than 10,000 and the number is falling each year. I have never objected to the right-to-buy policy. I was elected to Chesterfield council in 1987 and was a member of the housing committee. Labour councillors were furious about Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy, which had just been introduced. As I said to them, I could not understand why they were so angry. If they had thought of the policy of using public money to build social housing and allowing people who had lived in those houses for five, 10 or 15 years to cash that in as a discount and buy a house—something that those people would never have been able to afford to do under normal conditions—I would have seen that as a good piece of socialist engineering to give people
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access to the property market and property ownership. I have been told since—I discovered this only this year—that the Labour party was considering that in the late 1970s, but ruled it out of the manifesto as being unacceptable. How things have changed.

The problem with the right-to-buy policy from the 1980s and now is that the money is not invested back into providing more social housing. In Chesterfield, for example, 75 per cent. of the money from each right-to-buy purchase is taken away by the Government to spend elsewhere—or disappears into the Chancellor’s coffers—rather than being invested in providing more social housing. Since 1997, there have been 600,000 right to buys across the country and the waiting list for council housing has gone up by—hon. Members have guessed it—a nice symmetrical 600,000 to the nearest round thousand. Those seem the social housing provision polices of the madhouse. Right to buy can provide social mobility and access to the property market, but the money must be reinvested if we are to avoid major problems.

The Government’s answer is to force tenants across the country to leave the tender mercies of the council and have a registered social landlord, a housing association or a private finance initiative landlord—in other words, to privatise in one form or another. That costs more in the long run—just like PFI builds for schools and hospitals—because taxpayers foot the vast bulk of the bill and because people in the private or semi-private sectors borrow more expensively. However, it gets the money off the public sector borrowing requirement. It is a nice piece of voodoo economics or voodoo accountancy to massage the public spending figures. It is a piece of nonsense that is sold to us as choice.

When I have raised the matter in debates, in Prime Minister’s Question Time and in private meetings with Ministers, I have been told over and over again that I should celebrate choice. I do celebrate choice. One area where I part company from some of my fellow members of the Defend Council Housing group in Parliament, of which I am the vice-chair, is that some of them would say that there should be no privatisation or opting out of council properties. As a teenager, I grew up on one of the biggest council estates in Europe, in Sheffield, and I can see that some council tenants in some parts of the country might well feel that their council has made such an appalling job of running their estate that they would rather have a different landlord. However, the vast majority do not feel like that and the vast majority of councils that have moved over to this system have done so because the Government put a gun to their head or because they faced Hobson’s choice. Essentially, the decision is sold as, “You privatise, or you do not get your house repaired.” That is the choice that is being presented. I cannot understand the logic of a Labour Government who go down that route.

Of course, once one has gone down that route there is no going back. If the people of Chesterfield do not like the way in which the council is running the 10,000, 12,000, 15,000 or 19,000 council houses at any one time, they can change the management. They did in 2003: they elected the Liberal Democrats. People can change the situation; that is what democracy is about. However, once they have gone down the road of having
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a housing association or a PFI landlord, that is it. There is no coming back. There is no accountability with those landlords, especially when a small housing association merges with another and another and becomes a big national organisation instead of the small, local, friendly, housing association that was sold to people in the first place.

Then there is the limited amount of money that the Government allow to be distributed into social housing via councils. What happens in that case? This has been mentioned in meetings we have had with Ministers. Of course, there is a limited amount of money and it is rationed. However, it is not rationed fairly according to which councils have the greatest need. The Government basically say, “Well, in the case of the hundred or so councils where tenants have voted not to privatise, that’s tough. You do not get anything. You have voted and made your choice and we are going punish you. You don’t get the cash.” The ones that go half way down the road and have an arm’s length management organisation will get what limited cash is still available via the Government.

That is no way to allocate the limited funds that are available for public sector housing through council provision. Of course, money is always short and has to be rationed and spent over a number of years, but that money should be allocated on the basis of the need of places such as Chesterfield, Birmingham, Cambridge, Camden and the other areas that have said that they do not want to privatise. The money should be allocated according to need, not according to whether people are willing to have an ALMO or whether they take the democratic choice to stay with the council.

What happens to rents in some parts of the country? In Chesterfield last year, not only did the Government take £6 million away from Chesterfield council tenants in right-to-buy receipts that went off into the Chancellor’s coffers, they took £3.2 million from their rents to spend in other parts of the country. When I raised that with the Minister, he said, “Oh, but we only do that to affluent Tory shires.” I had to point out that Chesterfield is not an affluent Tory shire. It is a working class coalfield community, except that, since 1992, there have been no coal mines left. It is a working class community that had lots of engineering and steel works—except they have almost entirely gone, as well. It is a community that had much higher than average unemployment. That is coming down, but it is still higher than average to this day. It has many social problems. It is not an affluent Tory shire. However,£3.2 million is taken away from council tenants’ rents in Chesterfield every year—last year, the year before, the year before that, and next year—to spend elsewhere.

To my horror, I discovered that some of that money is going via the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister,as was, to provide infrastructure in London forthe Olympic games. Why are council tenants in Chesterfield seeing their rents go into that sort of spending? If Chesterfield borough council were allowed to keep half that money every year, it could provide the old age pensioners’ bungalows to allow old pensioners to move out of family council houses, which would free them up for young people with children.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has just said,
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because it suggests to me—I hope that he shares my concern about this—that Ministers are making decisions on matters that affect people’s lives not on the basis of need, but according to stereotypical views of what the area is like and, by the sound of it, whether the council is controlled by the Conservatives.

Paul Holmes: I am not sure that Ministers would go down to the wire on that. As that was said in the meeting that I attended, it was a sop to the Labour members of the Defend Council Housing group who were there. It was as if they were saying, “It’s okay. You don’t need to worry. It’s for a good reason.” I am not sure whether, if one followed the small print, that would be how the decision was justified. As I say, it seems inexplicable that, last year alone, Chesterfield lost £9.2 million from its council tenants—from right-to-buy money and from rents. If Chesterfield borough council had half that money every year, we would not have a problem with housing people in Chesterfield. Instead, the waiting lists get longer. Whenever that is explained, people cannot understand the logic of a Labour Government following such policies. I know that many Labour Members agree with what I am saying.

There is a fourth option, which is Liberal Democrat policy and Labour party policy. The Labour party reaffirmed the policy of equal access to funding for all councils and council tenants at the last Labour conference and the one before that. However, the Labour Government have reaffirmed each time that they will take no notice whatsoever of their own members or their own conference, and will carry on with their divisive, iniquitous and socially unfair set of policies.

I could bring up many other issues, but I have an eye on the time and bearing in mind that there are lots of other Members who wish to speak, I will not. I will mention one issue in passing. I had the privilege of taking part in an Adjournment debate on Tuesday, which was held by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), on the forced, compulsory merger of police forces to make an east midlands police force. I do not need to go into the details again because I went through them on Tuesday. I will simply summarise and say that we are seeing the merger of five county police forces into one super-force. That is happening all over the country. There was a sham consultation that was carried out to a ridiculous timetable. On 7 April, the five police authorities in the east midlands told the Government that they did not want to merge voluntarily. On11 April, they were told that they were going to merge anyway. What was the point of the whole sham process that started last autumn when the Government knew what they intended to impose in their first place?

The changes are not going to be funded properly in any part of the country—certainly not in Derbyshire and the east midlands. Paying for the reorganisation will lead to reductions in the number of police officers on the beat. Above all, the change will lead to a loss of local responsiveness and accountability. I know the chief constable of Derbyshire. I can call on him easily. His base is not far away from Chesterfield. I know the chief superintendent of C division, which covers Chesterfield, and I am meeting her tomorrow to
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discuss all sorts of issues. How will I go on if the chief constable is in Northampton, or Leicester, or Nottingham? That will be just impossible—it is a nonsense.

Since a new set of Ministers has taken on most posts in recent weeks, I hope that we will hear some answers that suggest that the Government are going to change their inexplicable policies on these matters, although I fear that I hope in vain.

2.9 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I wish to raise one constituency matter and two international matters. The constituency matter on which I shall address the House is gun, knife and gang-related crime. The whole House will have read in the newspapers last week about the tragic stabbing of Kiyan Prince in north London. We in Hackney are familiar with the aftershock of such crime because in 2004, 16-year-old Robert Levy was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old.

I wish to say a few words about the matter because the problem with both gun and knife crime is that, when there is an especially spectacular incident, it is all over the papers for a day or two, but then people forget about it. However, the problem is ongoing. There is a rising tide of incidents in the inner city. The problem does not just affect London, because the number of incidents of gun, knife and gang-related crime is increasing in urban areas throughout the country.

We need to be aware that knife crime and knife homicide is a schoolboy’s crime because the peak age for knife crime is between 14 and 21. The idea of playground quarrels that would once have resulted in a bloody nose ending with someone bleeding to death in the gutter, like Kiyan Prince or Robert Levy, is tragic. Such tragedies are also avoidable.

I praise the Government for the work that they have already done on knife crime. We are going to raise the age at which it is legal to carry a knife from 16 to 18. We will also give teachers more powers to search schoolchildren for weapons, and there is talk of experimenting with metal detectors in schools. All those measures will be important and helpful, but I stress that we will not have an impact on knife, gun and gang-related crime in the long run unless we address the youth culture in our inner cities. The saturation of that youth culture with music, videos and video games, all of which are riddled with violence, lies behind some of the shocking incidents, such as the stabbing of the young man in north London a few days ago. Welcome though law enforcement measures are, they will not alone solve the problem.

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