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25 July 2006 : Column 816

The history of that began when our local strategic health authority published a paper called “An NHS Fit for the Future”. The SHA said that it supported the Government’s view that investment and reform were necessary. We all agree with that. However, it also said that in areas such as Hastings and the Sussex coast, accident and emergency services should be provided only in areas containing 400,000 people. That immediately makes people believe that Hastings and the other towns along the coast such as Eastbourne will lose their accident and emergency departments—although we do not know that.

It gets worse, because the local media then start talking about downgrading to cottage hospitals. I thought that that was all right, because I could simply ask the chief executive to cross out the words “cottage hospitals” so that we all knew that we were not considering that. However, she said no, that she had a blank sheet and she had to think things through from the beginning. Of course the hospital in question will not become a cottage hospital—but why on earth can the SHA not say so? Why can it not say that some changes will take place but that all the dramas and crises, with people worried about their jobs, are unnecessary?

When people are worried about their jobs, staff numbers reduce because those who are most able to leave will go. We can then end up with staff who are not necessarily the most able. Of course many are able, and we are fortunate that the staff in our local hospitals are so good. However, behaviour such as I have described leads to an unnecessary predicament that, in management terms, defies belief.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Although health is a devolved issue in Wales, does my hon. Friend accept that such behaviour happens throughout the United Kingdom? What health trusts and local health boards call a consultation exercise is usually not that, and the scaremongering tactics by the press and others create fear in people’s hearts. Can we not have proper consultation exercises, which ask the right questions?

Michael Jabez Foster: My hon. Friend is right. The media will always jump on a bad story—but why do we give them the story? Why do we create crises?

David Howarth: I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument. In my area, the primary care trust is £45 million in deficit. Does he claim that that is not real?

Michael Jabez Foster: No. I do not know how competent the hon. Gentleman’s PCT is; mine is extremely competent, and in balance.

Several hon. Members rose—

Michael Jabez Foster: I am sorry but I shall take no more interventions, because of the time.

It is not only the SHA decisions on accident and emergency departments that cause problems. When one encourages hospital trusts to consider such possibilities, other bizarre ideas are formulated. Three or four weeks ago, our local hospital trust decided overnight to close the maternity department. That decision lasted only
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48 hours, and is now to be considered over six months. Doubtless my threat to mention the matter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister helped. Whatever the reason, the decision caused unnecessary alarm and despondency. We must get to grips with such decisions.

Apart from being the centre of the universe and the place where everyone wants to be born—and there will be no future Hastingsers if the maternity department shuts—Hastings is the 27th poorest town in Britain. It has no network of roads. It is 30 miles to one hospital and 20 miles to another, with no motorways and only six miles of dual carriageway in the county. Forty per cent. of my constituents have no car of their own. How could they travel that sort of distance, and why should they have to do it? There is therefore special pleading to be made for areas such as Hastings.

However, my greater point is to ask why the people of Eastbourne should lose their A and E department. There is simply no reason for this kind of dramatic decision making, and 20,000 people in Hastings—and no doubt many more to come—are saying no to the closure of their A and E and maternity departments.

If that were the only problem, it would be bad enough. However, there are so many more—

Mr. Andrew Turner rose—

John Bercow rose—

Michael Jabez Foster: I cannot give way. I would, of course, but I have no time.

I want to talk about the strategic health authority making decisions about our primary care trusts. A few weeks ago, it decided that we were to lose our focused, excellent primary care trust, which is within budget, on delivery and all the rest of it. Thankfully, however, Ministers intervened and decided that we should retain our local PCT. The subsequent decision of the SHA—some have described it as the revenge of the SHA, although I would not use that word—was to say that we could have two primary care trusts, but we could only have one chief executive to run them. That is meaningless. The SHA appointed a new chair for the PCT—an excellent individual—but it was not surprising that when he learned that he was to work with only half a chief executive, he decided not to take the job.

That is the nature of what is going on in the NHS in my area. Of course, at the lowest level it is delivering brilliantly. People are being seen much sooner than ever before, all the bells and whistles are there in the heart department, and all sorts of wonderful things are happening. People are generally happy with their NHS— [ Interruption.] They might not be in some Conservative areas, but perhaps that is because they just want to complain. However, in my area and most others, people are certainly happy with the NHS. Given that that is the situation, I want to encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health to seize the opportunity provided by the success that they have achieved recently, and to urge them not to let the bureaucrats mess it up.

5.46 pm

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I am grateful to have been called to speak in this very busy debate. I, too, wish to refer to the serious crisis in Lebanon. Like many other Members, I am deeply concerned about
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what is happening there. I see it as a tragedy of errors—a war that did not have to take place and should not have begun. The Government’s policy on the issue is quite extraordinary and needs to be examined. I should like to draw on my experiences in Northern Ireland, where, a long time ago, I was responsible for building part of the peace line in Belfast. I had the experience of driving the pikes into the ground at that time.

The policy of the Israeli Government is absolutely catastrophic. It was the greatest error imaginable to move back into Lebanon, and the UK Government policy on this is totally misguided. What Israel’s policy has achieved for Israel is desperate: its northern cities are being attacked at a time of holiday, families are being killed, and the country is less secure than ever. It is more threatened than it has been for many years, and it is now faced with rockets with a greater range than ever before.

When I heard about the capture of the Israeli soldiers I thought, “What a great opportunity for Israel to show statesmanship. What an opportunity for them to step back and give a measured response.” That was obviously what was needed. Hezbollah was clearly not being controlled by the Lebanese Government. From my experience in Northern Ireland, I question whether the Hezbollah people who took those soldiers were really controlled by Hezbollah. This looked like the work of a splinter group, rather than the main Hezbollah.

The Israelis’ absolute refusal to have any discussions on the issue was what started this war. We are told that Hezbollah started the war, but it did not. What started it was the fact that there was no negotiation. Historically, in 1979, 1985, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2004, Israel negotiated over the release of prisoners. The reason Hezbollah did this was not that it was being pushed by Iran but that it has thousands of prisoners in Israeli jails—men, women and children. That is what caused this resistance movement to gain energy and to take this desperate course of action. Now, Israel is faced with this attack. I do not condone or support it; I think that it is a terrible mistake.

The response of the international community has been even worse. Who can remember Henry Kissinger flying between cities as fast as he could to try to resolve past crises? What do we have here? We have a G8 that is incapable of coming up with a formula. We have an American Government who have given the Israelis a free hand to smash up Lebanon under the pretext that that is necessary to defeat Hezbollah. We have a British Government who—I say this really of the Foreign Secretary—appear to parrot American policy. When a commentator on the Radio 4 “Today” programme asked the Foreign Secretary about Iraq in connection with Lebanon, she appeared to think that there was no connection. She is completely out of touch.

We now have the ludicrous situation in which the demand made by the Israelis for the implementation of UN resolution 1559 calling for the Lebanese Government to control and disarm Hezbollah—which has become less likely than ever—is now a policy. Against that background, other UN resolutions—242 and 338, calling for the withdrawal of Israelis from “territories occupied”—are completely ignored, as if they had never existed. What folly it is to have that policy now. Britain has no troops in Israel but
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thousands across Arabia, had a terrorist attack in London last year, and has 1.6 million Muslims, and yet we have managed to put most of our friends in Arabia off-side by not coming out strongly against the destruction of civilian infrastructure, affecting Arabs, Christians and all those in the emerging democracy of Lebanon.

What folly it is, too, to take no notice of the fact that Hamas won the elections in Palestine. We support democracies when it is convenient—that is the American way—but what happens when the wrong people are in charge? Has anyone remembered that Hezbollah runs schools, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, and has been elected to the Beirut Parliament?

Why are we in such a mess? I have referred to the Foreign Secretary, but let me talk for a while about the Prime Minister’s special envoy to the middle east, the noble Lord Levy. He has not visited a single Arab country—I have looked it up—but he has made copious visits to Israel, of which he is clearly a strong supporter, with a business and relations there. He is supposed to be impartial. Why did the Prime Minister not choose someone who is an old Arab hand and really knows his way around the middle east? If we go to the Spinwatch website, we find that apparently, when the noble Lord took on his other role to raise large sums of money for the Labour party, it was on the

I have done a rough check on Library figures, and about a quarter to a third of all the money raised in loans for the Labour party since the noble Lord has been involved has come from pro-Israeli supporters. When we have thousands of our troops in Arab countries, is it possible that there is a link between the Labour party being short of money and British foreign policy in support of the Israeli position? Is it possible that the Government are conveniently ignoring our interests in the wider Arab world because of Labour’s domestic difficulties? I hope that someone will investigate this important matter.

I fear for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Government have done them a great disservice by not coming out strongly against the attacks on Arab civilian installations. It makes their task much more difficult. It is absolutely essential, however, that we take a more sympathetic view, and that we listen more to our British Muslims and try to give them comfort by not simply going along with an American policy that is clearly at variance with that which most people in the world believe to be sensible.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at 6.40 pm. As many Members clearly wish to speak, may I suggest that speeches lasting between three and five minutes might enable more to do so?

5.54 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I shall obey your command, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is important for us to discuss one or two more issues before we adjourn.

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As the Minister now on the Front Bench will know, the House will go into recess today and we will not return until the second week in October. What is mentioned every year at about this time is that the processes of government continue, decisions continue to be made, and Ministers continue to work. Some people confuse recesses with holidays. “Recess” means that Ministers are still working in their Departments, and will take just a couple of weeks off, like most other people. As Members of Parliament too, we need an opportunity to table written questions to Ministers during recesses. The summer recess is a very long period. I know that this is mentioned time and again, and the Minister always says, “We are looking into it,” or, “The Modernisation Committee is looking into it,” but is it not about time that we had a decision?

I also want to mention one or two local issues. One is the A59 in my constituency, which I have mentioned in the House before. There is one particularly dangerous junction where we see many accidents—including, sadly, fatalities—every year. The county council has erected some bollards to prevent traffic from turning right at the junction between Sabden and Clitheroe, but accidents still happen there. What is needed is a roundabout, but we are told that the county council has no money with which to provide one. That strikes me as rather odd.

We are obsessed with road safety in this country. Nowadays we cannot go anywhere without seeing speed cameras all over the place, and I understand that millions of pounds are raised in fines. Would it not be intelligent not just to plough that money into new cameras, but to spend some of it on road safety measures? One such measure might be the provision of a roundabout on that road in my constituency. The money could also fund projects for which county councils could bid if it could be proved that they would save lives. I hope that the Minister and the Government will think more about that.

I shall mention only one other issue—the joint strike fighter aircraft. I am a member of the Western European Union delegation. A number of WEU Members visited Washington recently to look at the aircraft, and we were also proud to see all the work that was going on when we went to the Farnborough air show. Some of the aircraft is manufactured in Samlesbury, in my constituency.

The issue with which I have a problem is the lack of technology transfer between the United States of America and the United Kingdom. We are fighting shoulder to shoulder throughout the world, yet when we ask for technology to be transferred to this country we receive a complete blank from the United States. We met the deputy Defence Secretary, who said that there was no problem between Government and Government but there might be a problem between industry and industry. That is clearly a load of rubbish, and indeed other Americans to whom we spoke during our visit completely discredited what he had said.

We were expecting an announcement at Farnborough about further technology transfer, but that has not happened. The joint strike fighter is an important military aircraft for the future of manufacturing in the United Kingdom. If we are to engage in future collaboration, there must be a proper understanding between the partners that technology is transferred, and that that
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should not happen only in one direction. The United Kingdom has transferred technology to the United States on short take-off and vertical landing. We did it in one direction; I simply cannot understand why it is not happening in the other direction. I know that the Government are already looking closely into that, but I hope that they will shortly announce that we are making further progress. We want collaborations to take place in the future, but that will require proper technology transfer—in both directions.

5.58 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I shall try to be fairly brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.

There are a number of issues that I think the House should debate fully before the recess, one of which, the middle east, has already been touched on. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to reassure us that Parliament will be recalled during the recess if the situation in Lebanon deteriorates, if the situation in Iraq deteriorates and the country ends up in full civil war, and if our relationship with Iran deteriorates. Those are all serious matters that need to be dealt with in the House.

We now have a two and a half month period in which we cannot hold the Government to account. That period was shorter in the past, because we sat in September. That sitting should be reinstated so that we do not go quite so long. We still have time off during the rest of the year, but we no longer make up for it in September, so the sooner we reinstate the September sitting, the better.

To return to the current crisis in Lebanon, I have heard reports that the Israelis are using a new type of shell, the shrapnel from which is not detectable on X-ray. That makes it very difficult for the doctors who are treating the injured to remove the offending particles from the body. I hope that the Government will look further into that matter and find out whether those reports are true. I trust that the Minister will pass that on.

Domestic matters are important to my constituents and none less than water charges. South West Water has its annual general meeting this Thursday and MPs and councillors will be protesting at that meeting about the high level of water charges in the south-west—the highest in the country. As has been put on record before, 3 per cent. of the population is still paying for cleaning up 30 per cent. of the country’s beaches.

The high water charges are not just the responsibility of South West Water. They flow from the mechanisms of privatisation, whereby there is no method for spreading infrastructure costs across the country, so they have to be borne by the individual water companies. The costs in the south-west are disproportionate. With above-inflation council tax rises as well as excessive water charges, pensioner households in the south-west are spending between a fifth and a quarter of their income on those costs alone. That, quite frankly, is unacceptable.

I want to make just two further brief points. First, affordable housing is a real problem in the south-west. We need a proper debate about when the Government are going to tackle the problem of affordable housing in Devon. In Teignbridge, the cost of housing as a percentage of income is higher than anywhere in Surrey: the Government will provide assistance for emergency and other workers in Surry, but no such aid or assistance comes to Devon or to my constituency.

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