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4.2 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I never thought that I would say this, but it is a pity to see so few Labour Members of Parliament in the House. Across the vast expanse of green in front of me, I can count three and a half Labour MPs, which is about 0.5 per cent. of the total composition of the House. It is a pity that so few Labour MPs have come for this debate on the vital topics of health and education, and that so many of them have chosen to take a long weekend, rather than coming to debate Parliament’s legislative agenda for the year ahead. It is a pity that more Labour MPs are not here, because if they had come, they would have heard the excellent speech of their colleague, the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). She gave a thoughtful speech from which hon. Members in all parts of the House could learn a lot.

I listened to the Queen’s Speech with great interest and was delighted to hear that the Government plan a programme of educational reform. Indeed, there is much that needs to be changed. I was pleased to hear that the Government plan to reform further education. Again, there is much in need of reform. There is probably the need for a new Bill on further education, preferably one that gives further education institutions real autonomy to run their own affairs.

I should like further education institutions to have the power to carry on running their own affairs and would welcome the idea of them awarding their own degrees. We need to ensure that they have even more independence from Government interference and the target-setters in Whitehall, regardless of which political party holds office. However, we need to ensure that any Bill does not swap higher education institutions’ independence from Whitehall for dependence on remote and unaccountable quangos.

The learning and skills councils are not fit to oversee our further education institutions. Self-government for further education institutions does not mean government by learning and skills councils. Further educations institutions need to be made accountable not to Whitehall or learning and skills councils, but to those who use them.

I also fear that we will see a creeping agenda of regionalisation in the way learning and skills councils are organised. That will not make for more local accountability, but for corporate bogus accountability. If we put our further education institutions at the beck and call of unaccountable regional quangos, further education institutions will look back fondly to the days of Whitehall control. We need to set them free.

In the Gracious Speech, the Government talk about the need to raise educational standards for all children, but I was disappointed not to see anything relating specifically to children with special educational needs. I have worked on the Select Committee on Education and Skills with Members on both sides of the House,
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including the hon. Member for Warrington, North. It recently produced a report that was highly critical of the existing policy on special needs education. In my constituency, Leas school in Clacton was shut as a result of the enforced inclusion policy. That closure meant that a lot of pupils who might otherwise have chosen to be in a special school were forced into mainstream schools. That policy, which has caused much hardship to parents in my constituency and to those in Clacton, is also causing hardship to children with special educational needs and their parents up and down the country. The work that we have done has helped to achieve a new consensus among parents, charities and the voluntary sector that the policy of enforced inclusion has gone too far. In the Westminster Hall debate we had on the subject the other day, pretty much everyone, apart from the Minister, agreed about that. Yet confusion remains about what is the Government’s policy. Is there still a policy of enforced inclusion? Are the guidelines and the statutory guidance, as the Select Committee found, still pushing local education authorities towards a policy of inclusion? There is a need for clarity. The Queen's Speech is a missed opportunity to introduce legislation to clarify where the balance lies between inclusion and mainstream.

The Queen's Speech shows, particularly on education but in other areas too, a general unresponsiveness on the part of the Government. I remember the somewhat heady days a few months ago when the Government announced a White Paper on education reform to set schools free. I supported the Prime Minister when he said that, every time he tried reform, he wished he had gone further. This Queen's Speech shows that, true to form, lightweight or heavyweight, he is still pulling his punches; he is not going far enough.

Why was the Queen's Speech so unresponsive? I would like to make a broader observation about the way it is drafted and about the way this Parliament sets the legislative agenda. Clearly, the Queen's Speech is not written by the Queen, yet I suspect that elected MPs made no substantive input to it. At best it is the work of half a dozen Ministers—but work conducted at the direction of remote Whitehall officials, rather than at elected MPs.

The Queen's Speech is not drafted by Her Majesty, nor was much of its authorship down to democratically elected Members of this Chamber. Much of the work is done by remote and unaccountable civil servants, technocrats and remote quangocrats. That is why it contains the perennial calls for things such as identity cards, and the perennial demands for new powers for this or that quango.

This Queen’s Speech is a Sir Humphrey’s wish list. It outlines measures to be rubber-stamped by this supine House for the convenience of the quango state that really determines policy. Listening to the speech, I wondered how much longer we can continue to have our country's legislative agenda set by a tiny unaccountable Whitehall elite. How much longer should a tiny elite have a monopoly in setting our country's legislative agenda? I would like to see a Queen's Speech drafted not by the heads of various quangos, civil servants or technocrats, but with the direct input of the people. I believe that we need a right
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of popular initiative so that everyone in Britain can have a voice in the Queen’s Speech. [Interruption.] The Minister laughs, but there is a good case for direct democracy, and he might wish to listen to the voice of the people.

As a mere Back Bencher, like most Members, I had zero-impact on the drafting of the Queen’s Speech—as did most Ministers, I suspect—and therefore zero-impact in deciding this Parliament’s legislative agenda. As a Member of Parliament, my best hope is to put my name in for the private Member’s Bill lottery. If I were lucky enough to win it, I would introduce a Bill that allows for proper Queen’s Speeches in the future: speeches that contain measures drafted by popular initiative and that reflect a system of government that is made of the people, by the people and for the people.

4.11 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) referred to this Chamber as being supine, and I agree: apparently, there is a lack of Labour Members who want to scrutinise what their own Government are doing, and it is a great regret that so few of them are present.

I must start by expressing my anger at the Minister of State with responsibility for delivery and quality at the Department of Health, who is no longer in the Chamber. He scoffed and laughed at my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, when he started to talk about Welsh patients. The Minister simply shouted across the Chamber that that was not his responsibility, but I have to inform the House that it is his responsibility. He is responsible for Welsh patients because almost all patients in mid-Wales come across the border to use the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, which is an English hospital. In fact, my hospital loses almost £3 million every year because the Welsh Assembly pays a far lower rate for its patients than English authorities do. Therefore, the Minister should be ashamed of himself.

I decided to speak in the health debate because I recently carried out a survey of all of my constituents. One copy of that survey went out to every household, and we have so far received 8,000 replies. Apart from showing a very large swing from Labour to the Conservative party, and an even greater swing from the Liberal Democrats to me, they show that the top priority is the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. My constituents are extremely concerned about its £34 million of debt.

The Secretary of State has said to me and the chief executive in private meetings, “Well, of course it is your problem, isn’t it, because you have been overspending?” How on earth can a hospital such as the Royal Shrewsbury be blamed for overspending? Its managers are not spending that money on luxuries or on sending themselves on Caribbean cruises. They are spending the money on medicine and the other vital things that the hospital needs to provide for the people of Shropshire. One example of that is Herceptin; there has been a huge increase in demand for it, so there needs to
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be more funding. But the Government simply are not providing enough funding for hospitals.

I shall now turn to maternity services, which I feel very passionately about because my first child was born just three weeks ago: a beautiful little baby girl. Mercifully, she looks like her mother; she is the spitting image of her mother—she is beautiful. Her name is Alexis.

I wish to describe the level of service that we received at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital when we were waiting for little Alexis to be born. The midwives were superb; they were extremely hard-working, professional and comforting, and I am deeply indebted to them. They were also, however, extremely busy. The labour ward was full throughout the entire time that we were there. Many midwives came up to me late at night and said in hushed whispers, “We’re going to have maternity beds cut. You can see how busy we are, Mr. Kawczynski, and that all the beds are occupied. We must tell you that four beds will be cut in November. Another four will be cut in December, and in January eight will be cut.”

So between now and January, 16 of the Royal Shrewsbury hospital’s maternity beds will be cut. That is an absolute disgrace. That so many maternity beds can be cut in this socialist utopia in which we apparently live fills me with absolute horror. What upsets me is that—as is always the case with the NHS—these people come to talk to me in hushed whispers because they are absolutely petrified of losing their jobs. They do not want to go public because they work in a regime of fear, and they worry that, if they rock the boat, they could lose their jobs.

The maternity beds are being cut because outside consultants, who want to reduce the £34 million-worth of debt, have identified that in Shropshire, on average, a woman stays in hospital for 2.6 days after giving birth. The figure for the United Kingdom as a whole is 1.6 days, so they have latched on to the fact that women in Shropshire stay in hospital for longer than is normal, compared with the rest of the country. That is why they want to cut beds—to get the women out quicker. However, that is totally wrong, because the help that the mother—and the father—get after the birth and while at hospital is absolutely invaluable and very necessary. They are taught how to bathe, feed and generally look after the baby; indeed, the help that they receive from the midwives is tremendous. Simply trying to get women out of hospital as quickly as possible will lead to far greater problems further down the line.

Of course, it is much easier for us, because my parents-in-law have moved very close to us—on a temporary basis, I hasten to add. My mother-in-law is renting a house just two miles away, until Christmas, in order to help with the baby, and I am very grateful to her.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): You won’t be in two months’ time.

Daniel Kawczynski: Well, we have the advantage of having my parents-in-law to help look after the baby. But there are a lot of teenage mothers in other parts of Shropshire, particularly in Telford, who do not have such family support. They are very young and inexperienced, do not know how to look after a baby
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and have nobody to help them. Throwing them out of our hospitals just to make way is wrong. I do not normally get emotional, but that is very wrong, and I want to put it on the record.

The deficit is so bad that my nurses have been told this week that they will have to pay £90 a year to park their cars in the Royal Shrewsbury hospital car park. How on earth are those nurses, who earn so little money anyway, going to afford that? Nevertheless, they are going to be forced to cough up £90 just to park their car. It is an absolute scandal. In fact, many of my constituents have written to me asking me to try to stop car-parking charges at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. Every time that they visit an elderly relative, for example, they have to pay. Indeed, I myself nearly got a parking fine. The tickets run out at midnight, so those whose wives are giving birth late at night are expected to leave them while giving birth, and to run down to the car park to buy a new ticket. It is absolute madness.

There has been little discussion so far about dentistry. There is a terrible shortage of NHS dentists, and I am disappointed that there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about what the Government intend to do to improve NHS dentistry and to increase the availability of this vital service.

The other day at my surgery I met a very senior local dentist who has set up an NHS dental practice in Shrewsbury. He told me that buying all the equipment and so on cost £650,000, and that he had taken out a bank loan. Interestingly, although NHS dentistry is said to be national, the grant from Government was worth only £50,000.

The chief executive of our hospital, Mr. Tom Taylor, has a very difficult job. He is an honourable and hard-working man whom I admire, but he is trying to ensure that Shropshire retains two accident and emergency departments—one in my hospital and the other in Telford’s Princess Royal hospital. He is fighting the Government tooth and nail because they want only one such department in Shropshire which, despite its size, has a population of only 500,000. In these difficult financial times, the Government think that that means that we do not deserve or need two accident and emergency departments.

Closing one of our departments would be a travesty for the county. Will the Minister give me an assurance that Shropshire will continue to have two accident and emergency departments, and that neither of the existing facilities will be closed in the foreseeable future?

The Government do not take into account the rurality of the county. For example, Coventry hospital serves an area of 17 square miles, whereas my hospital serves 172,000 square miles. It is huge area, stretching all the way from Aberystwyth to the Staffordshire border, but the Government take no account of that when providing funding.

The Royal Shrewsbury hospital is also engaged in a huge battle over cancer services. We are going through a public consultation process that might mean that we lose our urology services. The Government want to shut down Shropshire’s cancer services and make people go to regional centres such as those at Stoke and Wolverhampton. They want such centres to be situated in areas with populations of more than 2 million
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people, but that must be wrong. People who live in one of Shropshire’s small rural villages—such as Ploxgreen, Snailbeach or, in the south of the county, Cardington—find that it takes them at least three hours to drive to Stoke. We should bring services closer to people, not move them further away.

My local newspaper is the Shrewsbury Chronicle. Today, it highlights a problem centred around the local bed bureau, an agency that for 30 years has liaised with GPs around the county to arrange relevant treatments and provide transport for the people involved. The PCT has decided to scrap the bureau and replace it with two GPs, who will sit in a little room trying to suggest to the county’s doctors alternatives to hospitalisation for patients.

That has inflamed the local GPs. They are the experts: they know whether their patients need to be hospitalised, and they are furious. To circumvent the process, they are sending their patients to my hospital’s accident and emergency department. The A and E department at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital is brimful because patients are being sent there who should be going to other, more appropriate, departments.

My last point, which strikes a personal note, is not a criticism of the Government—although, my goodness, there is certainly a lot to criticise them about. Recently, I injured myself rather badly while I was chopping down some trees on my farm. A tree fell on my foot and skewered it—going straight through it. I am extremely grateful to the doctor who, with pin-point precision, managed to remove pine needles and other things from my foot, but I needed to use crutches for some time afterwards. Indeed, I was amazed that my hospital managed to find crutches that were big enough for me. When I no longer needed the crutches and asked someone at the hospital about returning them, I was met with surprise. They were extremely grateful that I wanted to return them, but said that most people hang on to their crutches, or pass them to someone else, or even sell them at car boot sales. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that people are made to return such equipment, because the cost to the NHS is staggering.

I finish my speech by welcoming my neighbour, the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright), who has just come into the Chamber. He and I are fighting strenuously to preserve good hospital services in Shropshire.

4.26 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I notice that we have just under an hour for four speakers, so my speech will take less than 15 minutes.

We have had a good debate. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) has returned to the Chamber. Her speech was one of the best I have heard in this place, so much so that I should like her to speak at one of my supper clubs. Most of my constituents would find much to enjoy in her speech and much to think about.

I want to talk about health, where it is not all roses in the garden. On Wednesday, I was joined by a number of colleagues from Hertfordshire for a rather bleak meeting with Anne Walker, the new chief executive of Hertfordshire’s two PCTs. Normally, there is a bit of
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jollity and levity at such meetings, but Hertfordshire’s health economy is facing a grim time over the next few years as the chief executive tries to bring it back into balance. I am sure that in Anne Walker we have a capable chief executive, but it will be a difficult few years for my constituents, regardless of whom they support—whether they voted for me or for the Labour candidate, Jamie Bolden.

Our experience carries a warning for all politicians. Broxbourne and Hertfordshire have been the victim of enthusiastic electioneering. In February 2005, Chase Farm hospital, which although not in Hertfordshire serves many of my constituents, received a visit from the then Secretary of State for Health, now the Home Secretary. We were told that there were great plans to renew Chase Farm, with new services and buildings and a thorough overhaul of that rather tired Victorian hospital.

Unfortunately, after the general election, the situation seems to have changed and Chase Farm hospital has a very thin future ahead. Local people are fighting a valiant campaign to ensure that services, such as A & E, remain at the hospital, but I fear that we may lose that service and the hospital will be run down until it is no longer viable to keep it open.

There was also some enthusiastic electioneering in Welwyn Hatfield in the run-up to the last general election. Hatfield was promised a brand new, shiny hospital straight out of the wrapper, costing about £500 million. Of course, we looked forward to that new hospital because we felt that it was much needed in Hertfordshire. As the site also happened to be in the constituency of a then Labour Health Minister we thought that the two might be linked, but we put such thoughts behind us as uncharitable. However, after the general election there was a new Member for Welwyn Hatfield and we have been told that the hospital will not happen. First, we thought the project would be downgraded to a smaller hospital, but last week we discovered that there will be no hospital at all on the site.

Mike Penning: The proposals for the Hatfield private finance initiative project were all locked into “Investing in Your Health”, which was part of the plan to run down and close facilities at Hemel Hempstead hospital. The sad news is that not only is Hatfield not going ahead, but while I was actually speaking in the House this afternoon, the board of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust announced the closure of all acute and all elective surgery at Hemel Hempstead hospital, against the wishes of 85 per cent. of the consultees. It is shameful.

Mr. Walker: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is a great sadness because he has fought tirelessly over the past year and a half to keep the hospital open. He has run an energetic campaign, as was shown by the fact that he presented a very large petition and that 85 per cent. of his constituents have asked that that hospital remain open. It is a sad day indeed.

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