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13 Nov 2007 : Column 620

In his response to the Gracious Speech, the Prime Minister made only passing reference to public health and even less to concerns about drugs. He referred to those in the context of law and order, but we all know that they are an issue in health and education, and therefore appropriate for debate today. They are also relevant to alcohol and the concerns about the lack of appropriate measures to tackle the level of alcohol misuse. The Alcohol Health Alliance has properly raised concerns about the number of children admitted to hospital every day.

The concern about alcohol is that it is the poor relation when it comes to treatment, but the concern about drugs is that the Government have woefully failed. Public money has poured in, with more than £100 million primarily focused on getting people into treatment. What is that treatment? Primarily, 85,000 people per year—maybe more—are prescribed methadone, but only 350 or so addicts move to recovery. Treatment is not only about medication or the cul-de-sac of prescription drugs, whose use has been described as a medically managed half-life. Surely we could do so much more, and encourage people into residential treatment rather than, as the Government term it, “exit from treatment”.

Residential rehabilitation is an exit from dependence that the Government should take seriously. Rather than having a drug strategy that is about harm reduction and ticking a box to say, “You’re managed, you’re safe, you’re okay,” we should be more optimistic. We should do so much better and give people the option of rehabilitation to realise their full potential. We should deal with the human lives that are not just defined by a tick-box, and which should be released from the slavery of addiction to alcohol and drugs. More needs to be done.

I want to address most of my remarks, however, to something that is in the Queen’s Speech: the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I was pleased to be a member of the Joint Committee on the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, although it had insufficient time for scrutiny and a limited remit. The Government have pinned their colours to the embryonic research mast through their pledge that the new Bill will

The key question is whether the Government’s desire is to be at the forefront of medical research or embryonic research. A primary concern is the proposal to permit research into inter-species embryos. Although the presumption in the Bill is the Warnock position, which permits research on human embryos and therefore their destruction, it is important to record the acute concern about the extension and expansion of such research. In its leader on 26 April, The Times rightly stated:

To balance that, I would say that the science editor of The Times was not right in the evidence that he gave to our Committee. He said that

on the subject of inter-species embryos.

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We should not underestimate the level of concern among the public. Let me make it clear that the destruction of an embryo after it has been subjected to experimentation and used to create a fusion of human and animal cells matters deeply. The ethical implications, as I am sure we are aware, are immense, not least because that involves tampering with the fundamental essence of human life. Its implications will have an impact beyond these shores, with the scientific world watching, as it did with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, to see how high we will jump or—in my view—how far we will sink.

In many places, the Bill will permit things that are banned in countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada. It is not surprising that the UK lags behind when it comes to ethical principles. The chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, gave evidence to the Committee and said:

In the absence of a clear moral compass, it is inevitable that research seems to cross more ethical boundaries in the name of progress, and wanting to be at the forefront of it. At the very least, the moderate recommendation of the Joint Committee for a bioethical Committee of both Houses should be followed up.

The aim of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is, we presume, to promote useful research, but the evidence supporting the potential for useful research using embryos or, where there is a shortage of those, inter-species embryos, is limited. Evidence from scientists suggests that there is no chance of embryonic research delivering positive therapeutic outcomes for a long time. The goalposts have been widened since the wild hopes in 1990. It is important that we should pursue alternatives that are not fraught with the ethical controversies surrounding inter-species embryos. Umbilical cord blood is one possibility, as is using adult stem cells, which have already provided more than 70 treatments. I have a ten-minute Bill about how to put in place greater provision for retaining cord blood, so that we can research that possibility further. Why are we speculating in an ethically precarious future? Surely we should be investing in ethical research. Surely we should have a Bill that is at the forefront not just of research, but of ethical research.

The Bill goes further than that, however. It deals with the wider issue of fatherhood and seeks to define the legal parentage of children in a new way. Although there is an increasing cross-party recognition of the importance of the role of fatherhood in social and emotional well-being, the concern with the Bill is that parenthood will move from a biological relationship to a legal responsibility. As a fellow member of the Committee, Baroness Deech, said on 8 November, the concern is that fatherhood is being downplayed in fertility treatment, with men being reduced to nothing more than a “genetic contributor”.

The Government’s stance on judicial policy is contradictory, on the one hand encouraging fathers to be part of the birth certificate process, but on the other seeking to remove the need to take account of the father when considering fertility treatment. Doing so has an important symbolic value. We should not sanction fatherlessness; indeed, we should not go
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further, as the Bill seeks to do, and sanction state deception. In the words of a donor-conceived person:

We should challenge that and say that they are not “products”—regardless of whether they are children or unborn children.

9.2 pm

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I will confine my remarks to the proposed education and skills Bill and the health and social care Bill. In the context of social mobility, I should also like to put on record my total support for the Crossrail project that the Government announced in October, with a financial package of £16 billion in place.

In the spirit of the theme of the Gracious Speech about supporting all children and young people, not just some, in their efforts to gain the necessary education and skills, I warmly welcome the education and skills Bill, which will raise the minimum age at which young people can leave education and training to 18. Combined with new specialist diplomas and an expansion in the number of apprenticeships, that will provide an improved participation rate beyond the age of 16, which is vital for my constituents individually and for business and society, as well as for the long-term sustainability of the UK economy in the ferociously competitive world economy.

The renewed commitment to reducing the number of young people not in education, employment or training will be of great benefit to some of my constituents. It must be achieved by paying close attention to the supply side and by delivering a range of vocational options in which young people will voluntarily seek to engage. The compulsory element is important, but really engaging the young people most alienated from the education and training system will require an effort to produce imaginative solutions. For that reason, I also welcome the draft apprenticeship reform Bill as a vehicle for producing those solutions.

In conclusion, I should like to make a few comments about the Government’s commitment to a health care system organised around the needs of the patient. I congratulate Ealing hospital in my constituency on recently gaining foundation trust status. I had a very productive meeting only this morning with the chair and chief executive of the hospital, at which we discussed how the new foundation status would help to make the hospital more flexible and responsive to local people and local health needs.

I also ask the Department of Health to look for ways to increase the numbers of primary health care centres in my constituency, in which groups of GPs can work together to provide a much more responsive and flexible service to my constituents than single GP practices working alone.

From my previous professional experience as a day care centre manager for adults with learning disabilities, I welcome the proposed health and social
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care Bill, which will create a new integrated regulator for health and adult social care—the care quality commission—bringing together the existing health and social care regulators into one regulatory body. With the current trends towards joint working between health and social care, it makes complete sense to unite the regulatory bodies into one.

The Bill will also introduce a new single set of registration requirements for all health and social care services, but this will need to be done very carefully, as the requirements could end up being too generalised to be meaningful, given the broad range of services that they will have to cover. For example, regulations that currently guarantee care home residents the right to meet visitors in a communal space or to bring in their own furniture could not be reflected in regulations covering acute medical settings. Increasing the quality of health and social care for individual patients must be the absolute priority of the Government, and this Bill will help to bring that about.

As a newly elected Member listening to my first Queen’s Speech debate on these Benches, I welcome the Government’s legislative programme, which I believe shows real vision in meeting the rising aspirations of the people of the United Kingdom. I commend it to the House, and oppose the Opposition amendment.

9.7 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The Prime Minister’s first hundred days can be summed up with a modified form of an old wedding proverb: something old, little new, plenty borrowed, lots of blue. Lumping health and education into one day’s debate after two ministerial statements is also something of a marriage of convenience for a Government who have failed to deliver on 10 years of empty promises on health care and education. However, it is less convenient for my constituents, most of whom regard the delivery of good health care and good education as the two most important ways in which Government policy affects their lives. I suspect that my constituents would be happier if there were fewer Bills in the Gracious Speech and more emphasis on the delivery of the services that matter to them.

As ever, the Government are long on rhetoric and short on progress when it comes to the delivery of proper local health care. The Prime Minister now seems to have cast himself as Hercules cleaning out the NHS stables—or, more simply, as a cross between Flash Gordon and Mr. Muscle. But, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) exposed last week, his deep clean commitment has more than a whiff of spin about it.

A further deep clean is now desperately needed: a deep clean of the Government’s target culture and centralised control of health care. The Gracious Speech contained a commitment on behalf of the Government to

Yet the new health and social care Bill will introduce a new integrated regulator, more targets and more interference with front-line professionals—all, perversely, in the interests of boosting public confidence in a failing system.

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The sickness in the health service is borne out by my constituents’ experience of obtaining adequate local health care. Before the 2005 election, they were promised a community hospital, but progress on that has since evaporated as surely as the Labour majority did in Braintree. I have repeatedly raised the fate of that project in Parliament, and I will continue to do so. The primary care trust’s latest position is that a full business case for the Braintree community hospital scheme will not be ready until March next year.

Those delays have already had real consequences for patient care locally. This afternoon, I hosted an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Farleigh hospice, which provides support for my constituents and others across mid-Essex. Last year, Farleigh cared for 2,663 people, but its year has closed with the news that the day hospice must vacate its premises on the site of the former St. Michael’s hospital in Braintree by the beginning of next year, because the future of the site and of the community hospital that was supposed to be built there is still uncertain. I do not see the Government’s commitment to local health care anywhere in the vicious circle that has trapped Braintree’s community hospital project since 2005. We have a Government whose unprecedented investment has been matched only by its unconscionable waste. Will the Secretary of State for Health now demonstrate a true commitment

by committing to build a community hospital in Braintree?

Unfortunately, the pace of change on education has left a lot to be desired. Some £1 billion has been invested in cutting truancy, but truancy rates have risen again recently with a hardcore of more than 200,000 children still regularly playing truant. The Government have failed to get to grips with keeping children in school until they are 16, but they now propose to keep children there until they are 18. I agree with the principle that improving skills among young people is both an economic and moral imperative. However, to think that greater participation can be achieved by the simple expedient of higher targets is at best naive, while to believe that either bribery or compulsion are the means to attain those targets is simply cynical.

I also want to sound a brief note of caution about one of the core principles of the Leitch review of skills. Lord Leitch’s exhortation was to

That is right as far as it goes, but it has its origins in the Thomas Gradgrind school of thought, being “eminently practical” but lacking in essential humanity. We must remember the moral imperative as well as the economic imperative.

By way of simple example, I recently met my constituent, Mrs. Gina Fost, who is one of many people who are struggling to afford the cost of lip-reading and signing classes as a result of central Government meddling. Providers of adult community learning courses must follow guidance from the Learning and Skills Council. Residents in Braintree and Witham have seen their fees for lip-reading classes increase in the space of three or four years from
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nothing to £94 and finally this year to £186. The reason for those jumps is that the LSC does not view signing and lip-reading as “basic skills” worthy of full fee remission under the skills for life programme. Consequently, pensioners must pay 37.5 per cent. of the cost of the course themselves. To my way of thinking, however, there is no more important basic skill than the ability to communicate with others. The education and skills Bill will supposedly place new duties on the LSC to support free tuition for literacy and numeracy. If so, it ought to support free tuition for lip-reading and other basic skills, too.

We need to reduce complexity in the funding system, not reinforce it. We need to move from a target-led approach to a demand-led approach to skills. In the drive for skills, we need to remember that support for some skills is governed more by a moral than an economic imperative. One of the Government’s besetting sins in the past 10 years has been the unholy alliance between profligate legislation, prodigal spending and parsimonious delivery. This year’s Gracious Speech is nothing different, which is why I shall vote against it and support our amendment.

9.14 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I rise to speak in favour of the Loyal Address and against the Opposition amendment.

I want to examine the education and skills Bill, mention some of the great things that have happened in my constituency as a result of our policies so far and consider what the Bill’s introduction will mean. Although the headlines in the days after the Gracious Speech seemed to focus on the school leaving age, now that the dust has settled, we can see that this is not an arbitrary measure and it is not just about raising the school leaving age. Extending the path of young people to remain in education until 18 is surely something to value. Perhaps we should view it as extending the right to education and training up to 18.

Those who have been involved in education and training know that in order to succeed in work, it is a matter of common sense to remain in education or training—providing that it is of high quality—until at least 18. That is equally important to the nation if we are to compete at global level. The most important issue, however, is that there should be a variety of good-quality options available: work-based learning and college, school or employment training, especially high-quality apprenticeship.

The key to the Bill’s success is aspiration. I truly believe that all young people should aspire either to apprenticeship or higher education. It falls to us to ensure that their path to achieving all they can is assured. Throughout all the depressing times as a teacher during the Thatcher years—believe me, there were many, including lack of resources, exercise books and pens and having to rein in classes of 37 eight and nine-year-olds—nothing was more depressing than the pupil without hope or without aspiration. I will always remember that as a probationary teacher, one of my first lessons in key skills was how to fill in a UB40.

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