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The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) gave us an entertaining picture of the political scene in Hull, with particular reference to school meals. May I suggest that before she worries about cross-party consensus she should try to achieve consensus in her own party? She obviously feels strongly about healthy eating, which she regards as the answer to childhood obesity. I believe that there are two sides to the problem: it is not just about what children eat but about how much exercise they take. Sadly, under the Government, there has been a drop in physical activity in many schools. For many years, children have become increasingly sedentary, whether they are watching television, surfing the net or playing computer games, so we must ensure that they take more physical exercise and run around. In business
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questions, I said that the cramming of houses into smaller spaces reduced the size of gardens, so children did not have much space to run around and enjoy physical activity. I am sorry that that met with laughter from Government Members, as the policy of cramming too many small houses on to a site reduces gardens and open space, which will have an impact in future.

Reduced access to public parks will have a similar impact. No recess Adjournment debate would be complete without a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, who said that public parks in his constituency were important, as they gave youngsters space to run around. Other members of the population could walk and sit in them, and their enjoyment would improve their quality of life. He raised, too, matters of conscience on which he has strong views, particularly abortion and the use of human embryos. However, he raised one issue that was new to me—the creation of animal-human hybrids—and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House listened carefully to the points that he made.

In yesterday’s debate on the Education and Inspections Bill, we raised special needs education, particularly special schools, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) pointed out. He referred to the problems experienced by many parents of children with special needs when trying to access the right provision for their children. The process means that parents often have to spend a long time fighting for such provision for their children. For some, that ends up in tribunals, and often in paying for support at the tribunal. I shared my hon. Friend’s concern about the case that he raised in relation to the daughter of his constituent, Mrs. Chambers. The fact that information can be kept from parents should be a concern for us all in the House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of bullying, which is a problem for far too many children. Like him, I do not believe we do enough to prevent and stop bullying. Sadly, whereas good practice in schools can improve the situation, bad practice can at best achieve nothing and at worst can make matters worse. We must do more to identify good practice with regard to bullying and to spread that good practice.

My hon. Friend also spoke about basic literacy in our schools. It is a serious matter, not just because of the impact that illiteracy has on children’s lives as they go through school and the fact that it holds them back in further learning, but because of the problems that it causes when they reach adulthood in getting a job and in basic living—understanding Government forms or reading instructions on convenience food or medicine bottles—let alone how it affects their overall quality of life. My hon. Friend is right: we in the House should be more angry about the matter than we are, and I commend him for highlighting it.

Quality of life was also a theme in the contribution of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who spoke about a number of constituency cases, notably that of his constituent Tony Thorpe, who was not eligible for redundancy payments following the closure of RAF Coltishall. The hon. Gentleman ably set out his constituent’s case and the apparent unfairness of the current regulations. He also spoke about the treatment of North sea fishermen in the
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context of the work on the BBL pipeline. I trust that the Deputy Leader of the House listened to those specific points.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned a Tesco store in Sheringham. I remember Sheringham from my childhood. I remember playing crazy golf on the beach at Sheringham with much joy and delight, at least to me, if not to those watching and playing with me. The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Tesco store raised important points about the planning system, particularly about negotiations between the council and Tesco.

I cannot comment on the individual case because I do not know enough about the details, but there is an issue with regard to the planning system because it depends on public confidence. All those involved in the planning process have a duty to behave in a way that ensures public confidence in the system. It is an issue that I often raise with reference to the enforcement of planning conditions. If developers believe that they can get away with breaching or ignoring planning conditions, the whole system is brought into disrepute.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who squeezed his way into the debate at the end, spoke about a variety of issues. I have mentioned the transport issue. For areas of economic vitality, infrastructure is crucial. The Thames Valley Economic Partnership has pointed out that because the Thames valley is economically vibrant and doing well, transport infrastructure is not put into it. Of course, the opposite is true. If transport infrastructure is not put in, the economic vibrancy will start to fail.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Diamond synchrotron and other incredibly impressive scientific work being done in his constituency. Last week at the TVEP dinner, I had the benefit of listening to somebody from the Rutherford Appleton laboratory in his constituency, who waxed lyrical for some time about space exploration and the impressive scientific work being done there. He also told us one important fact: in 2029 an asteroid will come very close to earth. The good news is that in 2029 it only comes close to earth. The bad news is that in 2036 it may very well hit the earth. Like everybody at the dinner, those in the Chamber are probably making a mental calculation of where they will be in 2036 and whether that matters to them. I leave them to do that.

Several hon. Members mentioned the NHS. It has been raised consistently in business questions since I became shadow Leader of the House in December. The hon. Member for Chesterfield was the first to mention it in this afternoon’s debate when he spoke about job losses at his local hospital, which is not a failing but a three-star hospital that has consistently delivered Government policy. Both the current and the previous Leader of the House have constantly criticised me in business questions for referring to job cuts in the NHS. I reiterate that they should get out and find what is happening in the NHS.

As several hon. Members said, real job cuts are taking place. There are 43 fewer ward sisters in the Chesterfield royal infirmary, 600 jobs are going in the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust and 450 jobs will be lost in the Norfolk and Norwich University
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Hospital NHS Trust. Cuts are also happening in mental health trusts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) outlined when he mentioned the Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust. Berkshire Healthcare NHS Trust has to save £10 million. It hopes to do that without cuts in services, but how can it without affecting services?

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne referred to his somewhat cosy relationship with the Secretary of State for Health, which he appears to have developed on several occasions in the Division Lobby. He gave the impression that he had spent rather a lot of time with her there. Although I appreciate that we have joined the Government in the Lobby on a small number of occasions recently, my hon. Friend has either been spending more time there than with us—I doubt that—or he is a fast worker. However, job cuts in the health service are a serious matter. They will affect patient care, not only the lives of those whose jobs are taken away.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield specifically mentioned financial planning and what happens when the Government pull the rug away from under one’s feet half way through the system. In the Thames valley area, the rules changed six months into the financial year and it was therefore little wonder that the trusts found themselves in financial difficulties. Yet the Government keep saying that mismanagement in the trusts leads to the deficits. That is often not the case, and the Government’s actions cause the problems.

Mr. Walker: Does not my right hon. Friend think it remarkable that a trust that has balanced its books for five years without going into deficit is now being asked to contribute £5.6 million to other trusts’ deficits?

Mrs. May: Yes, I do. It is also remarkable that the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, which is the most efficient trust, has to make 600 job cuts as a result of the requirement to cut the amount of money that it is spending. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) spoke movingly about the impact of that decision, which is being made today, on not only those who lose their jobs but Horton general hospital in his constituency and services for his constituents generally.

The Government keep responding, as the hon. Member for North Swindon did today, by saying that more money is being spent on the NHS today than in the past, so everything must be all right. We all know that more money is being spent on the NHS today than in the past. Taxpayers know that, but they want to know how the Secretary of State for Health can say that it has been the best year ever for the NHS when staff are losing their jobs, community hospitals are threatened with closure and units such as the maternity unit at Wycombe hospital have been closed. That means that people have to travel further for services and their choice is being taken away from them. People have a simple question. They know that they have been paying more towards the health service, but what has happened to the money? The answer is that too much has been spent on the target culture and administrative changes.

I have been a Member of Parliament for nine years and, in that time, the structure of primary care in my
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constituency has been changed four times. Those changes not only disrupt services but take up money that is doing nothing to improve patient care. The Government need to open their eyes to what is happening out there in the national health service. People know that the money that the Government are spending is not going on the improvements that they were promised, and from which they believed they would benefit. This Government are out of touch and in paralysis.

5.35 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): One of the pleasures of holding this position in the House of Commons is that it gives me the opportunity to listen to so many contributions from colleagues on both sides of the House, as they speak from experience and with passion and conviction. I want to deal with as many of their points as possible in sequence, but I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I deal first with what I thought was the outstanding contribution among the many excellent speeches made today.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talked about the problems relating to special educational needs, a matter in which I have both a professional and a private interest. He spoke movingly of the struggle that individual families face, and I am glad that the subject has been raised. It is important that the report from the Select Committee be taken seriously and I know that its members will have listened to him and to others with expertise in this field. That will mean that they will be able to produce a very informed report.

The hon. Member also raised bullying in schools and, like him, I praise Dame Kelly Holmes for lending her considerable weight on that issue. He hinted about the way in which the issue was being tackled. I believe that this relates to leadership in schools and that the problem can be dealt with. Indeed, it has been dealt with most effectively in my own constituency by a relatively new head teacher called Donald Macdonald of Liberton high school. He takes personal responsibility for the issue and talks to parents himself, rather than delegating the task to the deputy head or to other teachers. He takes what other hon. Members have described as a zero tolerance approach.

The hon. Member also mentioned literacy levels, but I shall not respond by saying where the improvements have been made. We need to look at how the problems are to be tackled. I heard similar criticisms before I came to this role, when I was the Minister with responsibility for small businesses and construction. Those concerns are shared equally by Digby Jones of the CBI, by Brendan Barber and by the Federation of Small Businesses, among others. Although I believe that we have turned a corner on this issue, we should unite to drive up standards further, along the lines suggested by the hon. Member.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) requested that I take up the issue of the European Union and the Moroccan fishing settlement. I shall ensure that my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign Office learn of his concerns and write to him about
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them. He also mentioned his criticisms of the Severn barrage. I know that that issue divides Members of Parliament just as it divides communities. He said that he was pro-nuclear and I know that he will be making a submission to the Energy Minister, who is considering that matter.

My hon. Friend also touched on local government and on his belief that the Government must implement their reform of local government, especially in his area, which has a two-tier council structure. Again, I will ensure that my colleagues who are dealing with that issue are made aware of his comments. He and other hon. Members mentioned railway lines. In his case, it was a single line that was causing problems. That must be frustrating for him, as he will be aware that we have doubled spending on the railways in the past five years to £4.3 billion, and that we now have the fastest growing railway in Europe. Last year, it carried more than 1 billion passengers, which I understand might be the highest figure on record. However, there is still more to be done. He praised the Affordable Rural Housing Commission and supported community land trusts, and I know that that will be welcome as well.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) raised a number of issues. I am sorry to hear that his local three-star hospital is reporting the steps that it wishes to take. The true picture is very different from the one painted in the media. There have been other reports where the number of job cuts has simply not been realised. Although the facts are not something that many Opposition Members seem interested in, let me give him some for solace. Of course, all the extra spending in the health service has gone on helping to recruit more nurses, doctors and consultants. In his own health area, the last figures that I saw indicated that there were something like 3,500 more nurses serving his constituents and the wider health area than in 1997, and more than 1,000 doctors and more than 300 consultants.

The hon. Member referred to the problems that he says are being faced in dentistry. He will know that we have increased investment in dental schools and education by more than 30 per cent., but to ensure better value for money, we have also increased the number of dental students by 34 per cent. The facts are clear: 4,600 more dentists are now practising in general and personal dental services than in 1997. Although adult registrations with dentists fell by 1 million between 1992 and 1997, under this Government they have increased by 1 million, but there are still issues that must be addressed and I am grateful to him for raising the issue.

The hon. Member spoke of people’s inability to secure social housing. I chaired the housing committee in Edinburgh some years before his service in local government. I never shared the misguided support for the indiscriminate sale of council houses. I am pleased that £150 million has been spent by the Government to reduce homelessness, which is down by 70 per cent.

I thought that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was uncharacteristically critical of the Deputy Prime Minister. If she looks at the record that I think he will be judged on, she will see 230,000 more affordable houses and a £2.2 billion budget that has gone to secure 30,000 social houses a year towards 2008. Those are important benefits, when
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we need to address the issue of housing for those who are priced out of the high-value housing market.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield also mentioned the police merger, but that has been the subject of extensive consultation. One thing was clear before that consultation was embarked on: there were too many police authorities. The arrangements are not fit for purpose in the 21st century and they must be reorganised, and I am sure that, at the end of the day, we will have a more effective police service in his area and elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) raised an issue that concerns all hon. Members: knife crime. It is important to ensure that the steps that we have taken so far are made even more effective. We have added a number of knife types to the offensive weapons list. We have raised the minimum age at which knives can be bought from 16 to 18. There is now a knife amnesty, which runsuntil 30 June. The last knife amnesty took place exactly 10 years ago, and I understand the more than 30,000 weapons were handed in. Of course, the message from us all is clear: carrying knives is an offence. They are offensive weapons. They merit penalties for possession, including imprisonment. I am glad that that was raised.

The Government have been clear and consistent on Guantanamo Bay. It would be better if the Guantanamo Bay base closed. The US Administration know our position.

My hon. Friend also raised Nigeria and the pipeline explosion that killed an estimated 200 people who she said were responsible for illegally tapping into that pipeline. Nigeria is a country in which we have taken a particular interest and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was there earlier this week. We are determined to ensure that our aid to that part of Africa and elsewhere is proportionate to our being the fourth largest economy in the world.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) raised the issue of the NHS trust in his area and his concerns over the reported number of threatened job losses that the acting chief executive of the trust is telling him about. It is important, again, to know that there have been several thousand additional NHS front-line staff—nurses, consultants and doctors specifically—since 1997. That is all part of that investment whereby spending on the NHS will triple between 1997 and 2008. I regret that neither he nor his hon. Friends voted for any of that additional money to the health service. I do not have to remind his constituents of what would have been the impact had the Conservative budget continued.

The hon. Member raised the issue, as did the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, who is speaking for the Opposition today, and implied that, although a lot more money may have been spent, the quality of service and delivery of services have not improved. Let me give him and the House the improvements in the two primary care trusts in his area—North East Oxfordshire and Cherwell Vale. In 1997-98, there were 6,912 operations carried out in North East Oxfordshire PCT. That figure has risen by a quarter to 8,536. The
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figure for the Cherwell Vale PCT was 10,847 operations in 1997-98. In 2004-05, it had risen by almost 50 per cent. to 15,152.

Tony Baldry: May I make a request of the Deputy Leader of the House? All I ask is that we find a Minister who will come to Oxfordshire to see the reality, rather than living in this fantasy world. Will a Minister come to Oxfordshire and explain to my constituents how losing a general hospital is in some way an improvement and an advance?

Nigel Griffiths: The hon. Member spoiled the strength of his appeal with talk of a fantasy world and by not accepting the facts. I was surprised at the strength of his language in saying that that was the blackest day ever, in the face of such figures and a trend that I am confident will continue.

The hon. Member mentioned the reorganisation as well as the position of general hospitals and of maternity—

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Nigel Griffiths: How could I refuse?

Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because there is an issue that causes problems here. He told us how many operations there were in that PCT area in 1996-97 and how many now. Can he tell us how he worked out the number of operations carried out in 1996-97, because there was no such thing as a PCT at that time?

Nigel Griffiths: I looked at the same geographical area and the information covered by it. The figures will have been added up from the hospitals in operation then and divided between PCTs. That is a fair question, if I might say.

On hospital closures, I know from the major hospitals in my constituency, including the sick children’s hospital, which I visited last Saturday, that the relentless pressure on technology, as well as the need for multi-million pound suites of technological equipment and for large teams of specialists, are driving the health service towards not just a more expensive delivery of service, but centralisation, because the critical mass can be achieved only by harmonising.

I recognise that that causes problems and it gives me no pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Banbury, who is genuinely representing constituents’ concerns, that his constituents may have to travel for an hour to a local hospital. That has been accepted over time in rural areas, and it is a pity if people see it as a diminution of the modern health service. I am not convinced, however, that such technological development, with highly skilled surgeons, nursing teams, anaesthetists and so on, does not tend to dictate that fewer highly expensive facilities are provided that do more and more effectively. I hope that he can have that dialogue with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health. It is, however, a genuinely vexing issue.

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