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I mainly want to comment today on the important proposal for a single equality Bill. I do not want to do so just because I am chair of the all-party equalities group, but because I represent a constituency where the gender pay gap is wider than anywhere else in the country. Women in Aberdeen earn two thirds of what men earn. There are explanations for that. We have lots of people in work, and a gender pay gap can exist only when that is the case. The nature of the work in Aberdeen
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also means that large numbers of people, predominantly men, work in the offshore oil and gas sector on high wages. Women, even if they are in quite well-paid jobs, tend to work on shore and often earn less. There is also a lack of transparency, particularly in the oil sector, which means that it is not always possible for women who work in that sector to compare their wages with those of the men.

Let me give an anecdotal example. I have a friend who works in the sector who told me that a woman who worked for an oil company discovered by accident that she was earning less than the men who she was line managing. That could have happened because of some reorganisation—perhaps the men had previously worked offshore and were now working onshore—and they were still on a reasonable salary, but it came as a shock to her to find out that she was earning less. That is why the proposal to have transparent pay audits and transparency in the salaries paid to men and women, ending the secrecy, will be a crucial element of the single equality Bill—at least, I hope that it will be an element of the Bill.

Such a measure is important because, more than 30 years on from the Equal Pay Act 1970, we still do not have equal pay. That illustrates that legislation is not the whole answer. We know that legislation on its own does not do everything. If it did, we would perhaps not need a single equality Bill. We know that we need to bring the different elements of equality legislation together in a single place and to make them easier for people to understand. At the moment, the legislation is a bit of a hotch-potch, with different definitions for what is reasonable or not that depend on whether we are looking at equality in terms of disability, race or gender. We need a coherent single language that will cross those three strands. We also need to ensure that the strands not covered by legislation at present—age, sexuality and faith—are covered, too, as part of a single equality Bill.

Andrew Selous: The hon. Lady has not yet discussed age discrimination. Some of my constituents who have family up in her part of Scotland have to drive all the way up there—and they do that perfectly safely—because if they fly to Aberdeen, they are not allowed to hire a car because they are too old. Does she find that as upsetting and wrong as I do?

Miss Begg: As I said just before the hon. Gentleman intervened, people’s access to goods and services should not suffer because of their age. Age must be part of the single equality Bill—something that the charities concerned with people of age have long been pushing for. He is right in what he says, although I am shocked by what he has told the House about Aberdeen airport. If he would like to pass the details on to me, I may be able to take the matter up with the companies at the airport. The problems with insurance are simply wrong and should not happen.

Obviously, I am especially concerned about the issue of disability. As I said, legislation is not and cannot be the whole answer to equality problems, which are to do with people’s attitudes and behaviour. Sometimes, when we discuss equality, we tend to think that there are only negatives and that there have been no improvements, but I have been using a wheelchair to get around since 1984 and I know that things have changed dramatically.

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For example, I can get into more cinemas now. I—a non-smoker in a wheelchair—used to be considered a fire hazard, whereas the drunk man with a cigarette was not. Very few London theatres were accessible to people in wheelchairs. If I wanted to travel by train, I had to use the guard’s van. That was the reality for people in wheelchairs only just over 20 years ago, but it is not the reality today. Problems still happen occasionally, but they come as a shock.

When I travelled with the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire around the country and around the world, I was able to play my part in the Committee’s work to the same extent as anyone else. However, the economic driver was quite important: hotels that could not take me could not take the other 12 or 15 members of the Committee either, and that was business that they lost. Very often, economics can be an important driver in changing attitudes to accommodating people who have problems as a result of disability or age.

In an economic downturn, businesses that have addressed the equality agenda— which welcome older people or which have made provision for people with disabilities—will be the ones that do better. That is because they will get the trade that other businesses will not be able to attract because their owners thought that the equality agenda had nothing to do with them. There is therefore a good economic reason why businesses, especially when things might be difficult for them, need to address the equality agenda. This should not be a time for backtracking or back-pedalling.

I welcome the single equality Bill, and I shall watch its progress through this House and the other place with interest. I hope that it will bring all the equality legislation together in one place for the first time, and make it coherent, understandable and easier to implement.

9.18 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): First, may I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and to listen to her experiences? I agree that those companies that have embraced the equality agenda, especially as it affects disabled persons, stand a better chance of riding through this economic downturn than companies that have not.

Being tail-end Charlie, I shall keep my comments brief. I know that everyone wants to move on to the next bit of business, but before I speak about the Queen’s Speech, I want to make a brief comment about the incident involving my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and the developments of the past few days.

I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will agree that there has been a serious breach of protocol and a serious failure of the systems in this place. For the police to turn up without a search warrant, go into a Member’s office and confiscate quite sensitive data is a clear breach of the public interest and our privilege in representing our constituents. My only comment is that I worry about the proposals for how we should examine what has gone wrong.

The special Committee, for example, may sound like a good idea, but we already have a procedure in place, courtesy of the Standards and Privileges Committee, to look into such things. It has not yet been explained to me why we should go down the special Committee route
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when an existing Committee is ready to take on a job of that nature. I am somewhat concerned about the debate on Monday. It may sound like a good idea but, given that the Government will table the motion and that it appears this afternoon that we have been invited to suggest amendments, I worry that this will become a party political issue, rather than both sides coming together to try to find out exactly what went wrong.

I now move on to the Queen’s Speech. As with all such speeches, there were good and bad bits. What any objective observer would note is that a fair chunk of the good bits are Conservative ideas. Direct elections for police commissioners, or police accountability at least, the welfare reform package, the NHS constitution, the independent exam regulator or the points system for immigration—these are all ideas that have first found expression on the Conservative Benches. I very much welcome those ideas, because they are ours, but it is noticeable that, if the Queen’s Speech and the proposed legislation for the coming year were stripped of them, there would not be much by way of good ideas.

We are told that the Queen’s Speech has been streamlined to allow Ministers to focus on the economy—and rightly so—but I suggest that some of the Government’s claims about the economy are falling apart. We have heard much in recent years about how prudent the Prime Minister has been, yet we are entering this recession with the largest budget deficit in the developed world. We have heard much about stability, yet unemployment is rising more quickly here than in any other major economy. We have heard talk about how boom and bust has ended, yet we are forecast focus to have the worst recession in the developed world.

My real concern is the extent of the debt that we are taking on. It is an interesting fact that the Government have now taken on more debt than all previous Governments combined. That must be worrying. It can only be unsustainable. When questioned about the tax-raising measures that have been introduced, the Government cannot deny that they have provided only a small element compared with the black hole that is being created in our public finances. The Government seem unwilling to come clean and explain where the money will come from to plug that black hole. It can only mean higher taxes further on down the road. That must be a worry for future generations, because if an economy is burdened with higher taxes, it will take longer to recover. That cannot be for the good of the country. I urge the Government to come clean about the extent of the tax increases that must follow from the amount of debt that we have taken on.

I notice that there is a Banking Bill carry-over in the Queen’s Speech. In many respects, that is welcome. The system of regulation that the Prime Minister, the then Chancellor, designed has failed. In 1997, he removed the power of the Bank of England to regulate the amount of debt in the economy and its responsibility for regulating the banks. A new tripartite system was established, but it was not clear from the start who was in charge. That became very evident in the latest crisis. There was the first run on a bank for probably 100 years.

The fact that the special resolution regime has been embraced by the Government—that is a much better way of managing bank failures than repeatedly nationalising banks—is a tacit admission by the Government that the previous regime, set up by the current Prime Minister,
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failed in its primary purpose of maintaining a stable banking system. Therefore, that measure will be welcomed, but it corrects an error that was made previously.

Members in all parts of the House have expressed concern that credit is still not flowing freely enough, particularly to our small and medium-sized enterprises and businesses. Too often in my constituency, small businesses are coming up against banks, in which we all now have a share, that are curtailing overdraft facilities and raising interest rates for the overdraft facility that remains. That is putting a real squeeze on smaller businesses in particular. In this place, we tend to underestimate the extent to which small businesses rely on overdraft facilities, particularly at this time of year. I urge the Government to take the opportunity provided by the Banking Bill to try to examine that problem. If they cannot do it here, they should do it elsewhere, but again I wish that I had heard about that in the Queen's Speech; there was nothing there about it.

On the fiscal stimulus that the Prime Minister has talked much about, I would question the effectiveness of a 2.5 per cent. cut in VAT when prices in the high street are already falling by 20 or 30 per cent. That cut may not sound much—indeed it is not much when we consider small-ticket items—but it is costing the Treasury about £12 billion, which is an awful lot of money. It is the lion's share of the stimulus package.

With that same amount of money, the basic rate of income tax could, I believe, have fallen by up to 4p in the pound. That would have really helped people in their pockets, particularly at the low end of the pay scale. Perhaps that would have been a better way to approach the matter. Then again, perhaps the Government were too concerned, worried and indeed scared about how attractive people might have found such a drop in income tax, even though it might have been only temporary. However, that would have helped hard-pressed families much more than a simple, very small cut in VAT, which will benefit only the well-off and the very wealthy in society who buy big-ticket items, and prices are already falling by up to 30 per cent. in the shops.

I will mention the following point because I notice that the veterans Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), is on the Front Bench. I am sure that he will have noted the developments in France with regard to the recognition of nuclear test veterans there. I am sure that he is following that with interest. I urge him to look at that decision in France carefully to help us to build on the excellent progress that we are making, which he has been very much part of, in furthering the cause of our own test veterans, who are now almost alone in not having their Government recognise their case. There can be little differentiation now between the French nuclear test veterans and our own. We have seen the Canadian Government, the American Government and the New Zealand Government all make positive moves. I welcome the new Minister to his post. Since he has arrived, we have made progress on the issue and I thank him for that again, but I also ask him to reflect on the French decision and hope that we can drive the agenda forward now.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned. — (Barbara Keeley.)

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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Health Services (Telford)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Barbara Keeley.)

9.30 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate Session on health services in Telford on the first day of the Shift. If hon. Members listen to the tone of my voice, they will know that I could do with some health services, but I have loitered here for seven hours to make this speech, not knowing when the previous debate would conclude, because this issue is incredibly important to local people. Health services in my constituency are important, and the issue is exercising the minds of local health professionals and those who represent our community locally.

I want to cover two points this evening. First, I want briefly to discuss improving primary care services. Secondly, I want to discuss in some detail the impact on my constituents of the new health and health care strategy for Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, which is being developed by the clinical leaders forum in the area and which is being discussed by the NHS trusts and local stakeholders at the moment.

We have an excellent range of primary health care providers in our town. Telford and Wrekin PCT will spend some £230 million of public money in 2008-09 on the NHS serving local people. Primary care services are important, and PCTs act as local leaders in determining what services communities need and how those services are commissioned. Our PCT has a good reputation locally for working in partnership with other agencies and delivering more through partnership than it could achieve alone.

For many people, the GP is their first point of contact with the NHS, and we have seen significant investment in GP services in Telford in recent years. New practices have been built in Oakengates, Dawley and Lawley, and more than £3 million is being invested in 2008 to improve the 20 existing GP practices—there has been significant investment at Stirchley and Sutton Hill, for example. That money is rightly being targeted at some of the most deprived communities in my constituency.

In passing, I pay tribute to those who work in the Shropdoc out-of-hours service. I am pleased that the PCT is looking to provide more services for local people with a new GP practice and health centre in Telford town centre, extended hours GP drop-in and pre-booked appointments, sexual clinics and screening, an onsite pharmacy, counselling services and a minor injuries and minor surgery unit. That is a positive step forward in primary care, but it needs to be developed in partnership with other GP practices. Facilities such as the Dawley practice should be expanded to meet local needs alongside that town centre development.

We have seen the provision of more NHS dental services in the town in recent years. I particularly mention the facility at Stafford Park and the service at the Park Lane centre in Woodside, which is part of a major estate regeneration process. That shows us putting together the jigsaw pieces of estate-based regeneration.

Secondly, I want to discuss the development of the overarching health and health care strategy for Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, which provides a framework for
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improving health and providing health services over the next five years until 2012-13 and sets out the vision for 2020 and beyond. That approach is part of the work by Lord Darzi to shape the vision of the NHS. The latest proposals have been developed by the clinical leaders forum, which was commissioned to look at the development of services in the county. Its strategic focus is on developing world-class services for maternity, new-born care and children’s health, planned care, mental health, getting healthy and staying healthy, long-term conditions, acute care and end-of-life care. That body of health professionals is bound by two guiding principles in the development of the strategy—in fact, those principles have been established as part of the strategic process. The first is that any proposals that the body comes forward with for our area must make sense clinically, and the second is that they must make sense to the communities served. I shall return to those two points in a few moments.

The clinical leaders forum has now produced a next-stage report that is being discussed by the primary care trusts and the local health scrutiny boards. The strategy does not focus only on hospital services, of course; a key focus in the report is the need to prevent disease and promote healthy lifestyles, and I welcome that. The report also looks at how we could provide services at home, or as close to home as possible. Again, that is welcome; the creation of hospital-at-home services makes sense, and I am pleased to note that the ambulance service, for example, is working hard right now to treat patients at first point of contact, therefore avoiding the need to admit so many people to A and E. However, we need to recognise that the A and E service in our county is often stretched to capacity and that many people still have to wait a long time to be seen.

I also welcome the proposal in the strategy that minor surgery, out-patient appointments and many types of scans will take place increasingly in community settings rather than in acute hospitals. Having said all that, I recognise that the most controversial element of the report relates to a series of options for acute hospital services. In simple terms, the health bosses want to do two things. First, they want to keep children’s assessment units at both the Princess Royal hospital in Telford and Wrekin and the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, but they want to put the in-patient children’s service on one site. That, they say, is the safest option. They also want to develop a service to care for children in their own homes. As I have said, that would reduce admissions generally.

Secondly, the bosses want to retain the A and E service on both sites, but with one dealing with the most seriously injured and ill—those involved in multiple-trauma road traffic accidents, for example. Level 1 A and E would be provided at regional centres, as it is now, and the two acute hospitals would have level 2 and level 3 A and E services respectively. At present, no decision has been made about which site should have which services. The clinical leaders forum has produced a long list of four clinical options for sustainable acute services. More work is to be done on those prior to public consultation on the recommended options in spring next year. The Minister will say that she cannot comment on the configuration until further work has been done, and in many senses I accept that. However, she will understand that I am using this debate to lay down a marker on my thoughts. I hope that the clinical leaders forum will think hard about what I have to say.

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