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5.58 pm

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), not least because he reminds me that my supply of echinacea is running low, and I need to book an appointment with my aromatherapist. Geranium and evening primrose is my chosen cocktail.

To return to the Queen's Speech, perhaps, I take issue with my hon. Friend on one matter. It is news to me, as a student of classical archaeology, that the Greeks sailed round the Cape of Good Hope in 800 BC. However, we can talk about that at a later date.

Yesterday's Gracious Speech was one of the worst examples of boom and bust, to use that favoured phrase of the Government. There was a boom last year, when 28 Bills were crammed into last year's Queen's Speech. Five of those Bills were still lingering during the final week of the previous Session. Hundreds of amendments were agreed to in the concluding weeks of that Session, but they were not considered in the House because our debates were guillotined. That boom involved legislation that was ill thought out and rushed through, and I am sure the Government will come to regret that at a later date.

After last year's boom, this year we have a bust--there is a great paucity of legislation. There are only 15 Bills in the Queen's Speech, a few draft Bills and several vague promises of progress on legislation. It contains a fairly motley collection of pseudo Bills and sloganising, and it is aimed cynically and solely at cutting and running to a spring election.

One of the most cynical measures in the Queen's Speech is the last-minute Bill on hunting. Regardless of what one thinks of hunting--I am no fan of it--the Bill has been included in the knowledge that it is unlikely to become law. It was proposed after a Government commission published the Burns report which made no case that hunting was cruel or that it should be banned. The Bill has been included primarily to pander to the class-war posturings of Labour Back Benchers for whom hunting is all about toffs on horseback and bashing the establishment, and for whom the welfare of animals is a lesser consideration. I say that as someone who has never been involved in hunting and who has no ambition to be, but I am incensed by the onslaught on civil liberties that the Labour party's hijacking of the issue has become.

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The Queen's Speech is largely about addressing problems that have worsened under the Government, not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) said, in the proposed deregulation Bill, which will tackle the 3,473 extra regulations that have sprung up in the past three and half years. However, a third of the Bills that we are vaguely promised are to do with law and order. The Government promised to be tough on crime and its causes, but that has manifested itself in a reduction of police numbers, which have decreased by more than 3,000 since May 1997. That has no doubt contributed to the first rise in crime in the past six years and the additional 190,000 offences that were committed last year.

We hear so much from the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary about recruiting new police officers, but we are never given the net figure. In 1999-2000, 4,535 new police officers were recruited, but against that must be set 5,948 who left the force. There were 5,391 new recruits in the year before, but 6,104 police officers left the force. Those are the true figures. In addition, the demoralisation of the police force, which has to work in very difficult circumstances, is exacerbated by the Government's releasing criminals early and allowing police numbers to be so reduced. That is a real problem that we face.

After three and a half years, we are promised more legislation to deal with crime, which has worsened under this Government. The Session will include a new Bill for curfew orders, which were first proposed in a Bill a couple of years ago. Since that measure came into effect, not a single order has been used. Anti-social behaviour orders have also been introduced. They sound good in principle and I would support them if they were properly implemented, but only 130 have been applied in the whole country. The measure has not been properly followed through or set up.

Law and order is about getting the mechanics of enforcement right and in place, and influencing attitudes. The Government have failed dismally in all those respects. Measures in the Queen's Speech are a late attempt to Sellotape over their failings, but they are all spin and sloganising ahead of a general election; they have precious little to do with delivery. Why should my constituents again trust this Government on law and order? At least this year they have learned the lesson of last year's Queen's Speech, which was disgracefully littered with highly political new Labour soundbites such as the aim to modernise, references to the challenges of the new millennium and a claim that more people are in work than ever before.

If there is one issue on which my constituents have completely lost confidence in the Government's ability to deliver, it is that of health.

We all remember the slogans ahead of May 1997-- "24 hours to save the NHS." We all remember how health was supposed to be an "early priority" of new Labour. We in my constituency remember local sensationalist campaigns about the crisis in the NHS, supposedly organised by local Labour activists and councillors, all of whom have fallen strangely silent, despite all the problems that we in the area continue to face. Let us read that part of the 1997 Labour party election manifesto headed "We will save the NHS", in which we were warned,

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and we were told that

Despite all the complaints heard before the elections, what has not been mentioned since is that there are now more bureaucrats and managers employed in the NHS than ever before--certainly more than there were three and half years ago.

The promises have not borne fruit for the people of my constituency. Seven months after tabling a parliamentary question to the Secretary of State for Health asking for the average in-patient waiting times in hospital trusts throughout the country, I recently received the answer. It reveals that, of 260 hospital trusts in the whole of England, the Worthing and Southlands hospitals NHS trust in my constituency has the seventh longest waiting times--the seventh worst.

It has nothing to do with the dedication and the hard work against all the odds of the staff in local hospitals, but we have now been told that the average waiting time in my local hospital trust is 149 days--and even that will come as a surprise to the many constituents who complain to me that they still have to wait 15 or 18 months for an operation, especially hip or cataract operations. Worse still is the fact that the average 149 days they supposedly wait now represents a deterioration of about one quarter from the 118-day average wait recorded in March 1997. The position continues to worsen.

That has happened in the relatively affluent area of Sussex, which does not have many of the inner-city health problems experienced in other parts of the country, but also in the top seven trusts with the longest and worst waiting times is the neighbouring Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS trust. The population of constituency has one of the highest proportions of pensioners and retired people in the country, and Worthing itself has the highest proportion of pensioners in the country--people who have the least time to wait for important operations. Given the large elderly population, the pressures we face are not surprising.

There is a knock-on effect in the shortage of care beds, which the Government so often deny, and in the residential homes being forced out of business, especially in my part of the world, such that I believe that the largest owner of residential homes in the country is now an accountant acting as an administrator for those that have gone out of business.

Why is it that, recently in my constituency, a lady came up to me full of praise for the NHS? She had just had a toe operation--a relatively small procedure. She had been taken into hospital within weeks for an easy operation and, after an overnight stay, she had been bandaged up and discharged. However, the lady next to her, who then approached me, had waited 17 and a half months for a hip operation, even though she had been hobbling around for many years. It strikes me as a warped sense of

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priorities when real clinical need makes way for patients who can be treated quickly, easily and inexpensively and so be subtracted from the number on the waiting list.

Why is that, in 1997, there were 75 nurse vacancies in my constituency and, three and a half years on, there are still 75 nurse vacancies in my constituency? Many nurses who have left the NHS return as agency nurses to fill the shortages and often work in the same wards alongside colleagues with whom they previously worked, but they are paid, on average, more than 13 per cent. more than they were paid before. That is absurd, especially in the light of the added costs placed on the hospital trusts concerned. That position is becoming worse and nurses are becoming more demoralised despite all the warm words from the Government.

What is the Government's response? It is a health and social care modernisation Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said, that is more about reorganisation for reorganisation's sake and yet more managers. A priority within that Bill is the abolition of community health councils. Legislation will also be introduced to ban tobacco advertising, another one of the health measures promised in the Queen's Speech, three and a half years after the Government promised such changes in their manifesto. They drew back when Mr. Ecclestone came calling at No. 10.

I was a member of a community health council in Wandsworth for about four years. I am aware that CHCs play an important role in the NHS as the independent friend of patients. That gave rise to comments by the Prime Minister's agent, who wanted to

Now we know that that was a hollow congratulation because they are to be abolished unequivocally with no consultation.

It was interesting that at the beginning of the debate the Secretary of State for Health ran off a list of criticisms about the way in which CHCs did not work in many instances throughout the country. Many CHCs will take that extremely badly, after all the hard work, much of it voluntary, that they do. The CHC experts, the patients concerned, said through their spokeswoman that the proposal to set up a patient forum in every trust is a step forward, but only if these are in addition to an independent outside body with some form of national co-ordination. She said that the national plan pays lip service to the idea of strengthening the influence of patient views and that, in reality, the new arrangements are likely to leave the patient voice fragmented, localised and easy to ignore. Is not that right?

The success of CHCs is that they are physically at arm's length from the local health authority, often set up in shops in the high street. They are seen to be independent, with much voluntary input and much good will, and they get on with their job. If there is one criticism of CHCs, it is that they are not well known enough and that more people do not go to them sooner.

I work closely with the Worthing CHC under its excellent head, Trevor Richards. It has been responsible in my constituency for highlighting the threat of the closure of the Southlands hospital and fighting against it. It has highlighted gaps within the mentally ill health facilities in West Sussex in particular, which is a great concern of ours.

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The proposed measures will mean that CHCs will be replaced by talking shops and panels which, in the words of Joyce Robbins, will amount to

The Government have strange priorities. A key measure on health in the Queen's Speech is about abolishing an independent watchdog in the NHS. The inevitable dilution of scrutiny will do nothing to help my constituents who are waiting 18 months for a hip operation. It will not do anything to help my hospital improve on its position of 253rd in terms of the longest waiting times throughout England.

The Government have strange priorities also when we are promised measures on adoption, housing, consumer protection, urban renewal, voting systems, reform of the House of Lords and on commonhold, for example, but find that they have all been nudged out by a small, scruffy little Bill to ban tobacco advertising. I hold no particular flag for smokers. I am delighted that at the age of 66--today is his 66th birthday--my father has remained off the weed for about three months, after 45 years of smoking incessantly and annoyingly. He was not remotely influenced by brand advertising, either when he took up smoking as a student or when he gave it up as a pensioner. He would have been much more influenced by well-designed advertising about the hazards of smoking, particularly recent advertisements from the Department of Health carrying the message that it is never too late to give up, although I do not think that he would admit it if I put it to him directly.

By means of a ban, the Government hope to reduce smoking by 2.5 per cent., especially among young people. That is a laudable aim, yet under the Government smoking has already increased by 3 per cent, largely due to smuggling. That is where funds, resources and Government time would be better directed. The biggest single threat is from cigarette smugglers selling cheaply from car boots outside school playgrounds, as happens throughout the country. It would be much better if the Government targeted their resources at those problems, rather than using the usual blunt instrument of politically correct regulation.

It is ironic that a Government who allegedly intend to regulate the availability of another health hazard--alcohol--by moving to 24-hour licensing are now clamping down instead on tobacco advertising, although they seem to have shied away from measures on alcohol. They are going for the easy hit on tobacco, although there is little evidence to prove a link between advertising and increased usage, and despite the impact on sport funding, after the lottery has lost so much money for sport because of the sixth good cause.

I am for anything that will persuade more people to shun smoking, but the Government's proposed measure is not it. For a ban on tobacco advertising to take precedence over all the areas that I have mentioned shows a warped attitude to priorities on the part of the Government.

There is to be a Bill to compel police to hunt hunters, ahead of empowering police to hunt down the proceeds of drug dealing; a Bill to introduce gimmicky and unproven house buyer packs, instead of long-awaited legislation to deliver reforms in the provision of decent housing, which has so deteriorated under the Government; a Bill for bouncers, ahead of any progress on the

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constitution of the upper House; and a Bill to ban tobacco advertising, ahead of any primary legislation to produce the much-needed boost to urban regeneration so hyped up in the vastly oversold urban White Paper--what strange priorities. Surely the entire Queen's Speech, so typical of new Labour's approach, is all spin and no delivery.

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