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4.35 pm

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I am grateful for being called in this debate on an historic Gracious Speech. It is historic for Labour Members because it marks the first time that we have been elected for a second full term with the majority necessary to carry out our policies. I congratulate my new hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) on his maiden speech. It was excellent and I am sure that he will make a fine parliamentarian.

This speech is like another maiden speech for me, because I spent the past four years on the Treasury Bench as a Government Whip. It feels odd up here on the Back Benches and it is certainly much higher than I remember it when I sat in a similar position on the other side of the Chamber. Instead of being restricted to moving formal motions on behalf of the Government, I am looking forward to making some less restricted interventions. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for giving me the opportunity to be part of his first Government--the first Labour Government after 18 years of the Tories--but I must admit that it was more than a tad disappointing when he broke the news to me that he did not want me in his second Administration. I guess that he was suggesting that I should spend more time with my golf clubs. However, it is no good crying about such things and there is plenty of work for Back Benchers to do.

While that lot over on the Tory Benches are busy examining their collective political navel, and no doubt disappearing into political oblivion, we have been elected to deliver better public services and to improve the lives of our people. In our first term, we undoubtedly laid sound foundations from which to go forward. We have a sound and stable economy that is unprecedented in recent times. We have made a good start on improving our health and education systems, on fighting crime and on reducing unemployment. After 18 years of the Tories, constituencies such as Doncaster, North had suffered more than most. The Tories said then that unemployment was a price worth paying. The problem was that it was not the Tories or their supporters who did the paying but people in constituencies such as mine, where thousands were thrown on to the scrap heap and left to rot on state handouts with little future and even less hope. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. That is the second time that I have heard a mobile phone go off in the Chamber this afternoon. I do not know whose phone is ringing now, but I remind everyone that the Chair takes a serious view of such incidents. Members must either leave their phones outside or make sure that they are switched off.

Mr. Hughes: If it is the Prime Minister for me, can someone tell him to hold on for a moment? When I have finished he might not want me to phone him back.

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When we were elected in 1997, people had great expectations, many of which were unrealistic. It was never going to be easy or possible to roll back the devastation caused by the Tories in only four or five years, but we made a good start. However, anyone who read our increasingly cynical press would think that nothing had changed--except for the worse: even the bad weather that we had last year, and the foot and mouth outbreak, were entirely the Government's fault.

I am pleased to welcome the programme set out in the Gracious Speech. I am especially pleased that there will be legislation to help more people back into work. In my constituency, unemployment has already been reduced by more than 40 per cent. by the Government, but, at almost 5 per cent., it is still far too high. We can do more.

A proposed development in Doncaster would be very helpful in getting people back to work--and into real jobs, not schemes. Just weeks before the general election, the Government decided to hold a public inquiry into the proposed development of an international airport at the former Royal Air Force base at Finningley. It is imperative for the future of employment in Doncaster and the south Yorkshire area that this development go ahead, and sooner rather than later.

There is no reason why the development should not go ahead. It does not represent a basic change of use, and the base is not a greenfield site. The project meets the Government's desire to redevelop brownfield sites and to transfer air traffic away from the south and south-east. It meets the Government's desire to regenerate coalfield areas, and to reduce road traffic. It has the support of local people and local business.

How many hon. Members know of a proposed airport about which a petition has been compiled that is in favour of it? About 80 or 90 per cent. of the population of Doncaster is in favour of the development--even in the village of Finningley, where the people who started the petition live. If the project goes ahead, it will create as many as 7,000 jobs in 15 years. They will be real jobs: mainly unskilled or semi-skilled, but probably fairly well paid. We suffered at the hands of the Tories, and the project represents a real chance for the Labour Government to step forward and start to rebuild in Doncaster and south Yorkshire.

The only real objections have come from other airports, on purely commercial grounds. Manchester airport has objected, as has Humberside airport--which is now owned by Manchester airport. East Midlands airport has also objected, although I understand that it is near to closing a deal with Manchester airport. Those airports must not be allowed to rob us of this job-creating opportunity out of pure commercial greed. Indeed, it may be time for the Competition Commission to start an inquiry into that growing consortium of northern airports, which thinks that it can dictate who can share in the wealth created by the ever-growing air traffic industry.

On education, I was pleased that the Government plan to improve standards further. We need to develop more vocational provision. All too often, youngsters who may not be able to make it in academia are left on the touchline, even though they may have superb natural skills in practical matters. We must exploit every talent, whether it is academic or vocational.

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I am pleased that the Government will continue to modernise the national health service, but there must be real change on the front line. The Tories starved the NHS, and would have gone for full-scale privatisation--

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): No.

Mr. Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Tory goal was full-scale, American-type privatisation. They still hanker after that.

Although we have made reforms and poured a great deal of extra cash into the NHS, I still have constituents who are waiting far too long for treatment, and not just for operations. Why is it that constituents have to wait more than a week--sometimes nearly two--just to get an appointment to see the general practitioner? What has happened to all the extra cash, and where is it being spent?

Local health professionals--such as the chief executives of the health authority, the healthcare trusts and the Doncaster royal infirmary trust--tell me that they are delighted with the amounts of extra cash that have been made available, but, on the front line, my constituents appear not to be able to notice the improvements.

When I was younger, my local GP practice had only two GPs, yet anyone who went to the surgery before 10 am could, after a wait of an hour or an hour and a half, see one of the GPs. Out of hours, it was possible to ring up and a GP would make a home visit. At the time, thousands of people in the area worked in heavy industry or coal mining. Many more people than now suffered injuries and the health problems inherent in working in those industries.

Today that practice has four GPs--and sometimes six. There are triage nurses, physiotherapy nurses, chiropody nurses and district nurses. There are practice managers with computers coming out of their ears. There is a contract for out-of-hours service, yet my constituents have to wait more than a week for an appointment to see a GP. That beggars belief. Why does it happen, when we have more doctors and nurses, no out-of-hours visits and better facilities and support?

I am therefore pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), is on the Front Bench to hear the debate. I hope that she will be able to answer some questions. Who is spending the money that has been made available? What are they spending it on? We must know those answers before we pour any more money into the NHS.

I am pleased that we are to continue with reform of the other place, despite media speculation that we would not. I am pleased that the intention is to remove the remaining hereditary peers, but I should not be happy about any proposal to elect even part of a new second Chamber. I believe that that would lead to even more conflict between them and us. There can be, and should be, only one democratically elected Chamber, and that is the House of Commons. If we give Members of the House of Lords a constituency, we give them a licence to oppose anything and everything that we do. We will end up in deadlock. We need a second Chamber that will act as a check and balance, not another delay mechanism in what is already a lengthy legislative process.

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I am pleased, as I know that my constituents will be, that a Bill will be brought in to help the police fight crime. It is important to have in place a good and effective complaints system, and some of the Bill will be devoted to that, but it is not more complaints that we want. What we want is more police. More police mean less crime and fewer complaints. The main complaint from my constituents is about the police not responding when they need help. It is true that in some cases the police do not respond, but they cannot because there are not enough of them. My constituents do not want to hear, "Well, what can we do?"; they want to see the police around. They want the police to prevent crime, not turn up to look at an empty space where a television or video player used to be. If the police are to fulfil what we want of them, they need resources. I welcome any moves to achieve that.

It is good to see the hunting with dogs Bill in the programme. It is time to end that barbaric pursuit. Terrorising and killing animals is disgusting. People who think that it is fun are disgusting. People who think that it is a sport need psychiatric help. However, it could have waited for the next Session. It is important but, I have to say, it was not top priority on the doorsteps of my patch when I was campaigning. People want jobs, better health care, better housing, improvements in education and less crime.

I am not a big drinker, but I am disappointed that we are missing the opportunity to liberalise our archaic drinking laws. I understand that it is not an immediate priority. That said, I would rather that it were in front of the hunting Bill. Liberalisation would create more jobs. Pubs, clubs and associated industry in my area employ a considerable number of people. If we extended opening hours, it would lead to further welcome part-time employment for many people. It is ridiculous in 2001 still to be shackled to our archaic laws. People who go abroad on holiday experience more liberal laws and see their benefits. It seems silly that we are locked into archaic opening hours. We all know that extended opening would boost income, particularly in our tourist areas. Publicans in whatever area would soon find a timetable to suit their particular business. If I am lucky in the private Member's ballot, I might seek to introduce such a Bill.

I should have liked there to have been something on devolution to the English regions. The Government remain committed to devolution in Scotland and Wales, and that is fine, but let us get decision making closer to the people of the English regions, too.

There is much more in the Gracious Speech to be pleased with. I only hope that we are not again taking on more than it is feasible to get through the system with proper democratic scrutiny. The legislation that we passed in the second half of the last Parliament is not yet being felt on the ground. The message on the doorsteps of Doncaster, North was abundantly clear: yes, we have done well in only four years; yes, we have laid decent foundations; but go back and show what can be done with the full second term.

I do not want to see battles with public sector workers for the sake of making us look tough. If there is to be private sector involvement in our public services, it must be only where appropriate and where it can bring added value. The idea that everything that the private sector does is good and everything that the public sector does is bad is stupid. The balance must be absolutely right because if it is not, our supporters will not forgive us. We do not

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want any Railtracks in education or in our health service. There must be no imposition along those lines. Ministers must talk to those who work in our public services, and seek their knowledge on how the services should be run and how to improve them. Ministers must carry public servants with them and then they will carry the public with them, too. Ignore public servants at our peril; carry them and we will end up with much improved public services.

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