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5.52 pm

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe): I want to reflect on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) about how strange it is to make a speech again after four years of enforced silence in the Whips Office. This is my first speech from this side of the Chamber. Four years is a quite a long time. Perhaps after the next 10 or 15 minutes, cries of "Four more years!" will ring round the Chamber. I spent a happy four years in the Whips Office, if the idea of a happy Whip is not too hard a concept for hon. Members to contemplate.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the improvements in our public services--the issue that ordinary electors raised with me on the doorstep during the general election campaign. They were concerned about health, education, crime and transport, among other issues.

Without a strong economy, the debate about improving public services would be irrelevant. The fact that we created 1 million more jobs, with more people paying tax and fewer on benefit, has brought about sound public finances. We know what to do with those sound public finances: we will use them to improve our public services, which is what the public voted for. That contrasts with the official Opposition, who would have frittered away the benefits of that strong economy on tax cuts, which the electorate rejected, and with the Liberal Democrats, who would have frittered away the strong economy with a splurge of public expenditure increases that neither they nor anyone else has any idea how to fund. They called for more nurses, doctors and teachers; more for pensioners and for farmers; the abolition of student fees; and free long-term care for the elderly. A penny on income tax would never have funded all that, and in the end the electorate were not fooled.

Dr. Evan Harris: I am delighted to respond to the hon. Gentleman's litany of our excellent pledges. He must recognise that not all of them were to be funded by the 1p on income tax, which was for education. He is clearly against our proposal of 10p on the top rate of income tax for those earning more than £100,000--it is too redistributive for him--which was the fair way of funding our promises on pensions and the health service.

Mr. Betts: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but I still do not think that his sums add up, and he failed to mention the fact that the Liberal Democrats supported the new deal but voted against the tax increases to fund it. That is another hole in their finances.

Education has rightly been given great priority; I, too, accord it and specialist schools importance. I am in favour of such schools, which have been of great benefit to the children who attend them. Indeed, I am bound to say so

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because the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has written to me today, announcing not one but two new specialist schools in my constituency: Birley community college and Hansworth Grange school. I welcome those measures; both schools deserve those awards.

There is concern, however, not about the creation of specialist schools or the fact that they disadvantage other schools, but about parents' perception: parents considering sending their children to other schools may think that they are somehow inferior. That is certainly not true in the case of adjacent schools in my constituency, but parents' perception may be a danger. Ministers ought to consider how they will tackle that, along with other schools. The school adjacent to Birley community college in my constituency is Westfield school, which is in no way inferior but, unfortunately, has inferior school buildings.

I therefore support strongly the Government's building programme in education. In Sheffield, there has been an increase from the 1996 allocation of between £1 million and £2 million a year for capital programmes in education to more than £100 million, which is currently being spent on building works in schools throughout the city. In my constituency, schools have been built through the private finance initiative; some have been built through the new deal and some through mainstream funding. Pupils, school governors and staff are not worried how schools are built or how financing is secured; they are just grateful that they have new schools, which would not have been provided by the Opposition. My plea is certainly for more school building programmes; we should carry on the good work. I hope that Westfield school is near the top of Ministers' priorities, as its buildings are poor and have been deteriorating for many years. A working party has been set up between the Department for Education and Skills and Sheffield city council officials to look at school assets, so I hope that a new asset plan will bring help to that area.

I wish to sound a cautionary note about pre-school education. One of the best things that we did in the previous Parliament was to provide universal pre-school education for four-year-olds. Getting to children early, particularly those from disadvantaged homes, is very important indeed. I welcome the commitment to get universal provision down to the age of three.

Passing legislation in this place does guarantee delivery outside. I have a particular problem in my constituency, as it took me several months to get recognition of the fact that a local authority was not delivering universal provision for four-year-olds. In the Charnock area of my constituency, not every four-year-old has the right to a nursery place because the local authority plan remains defective. Eventually, after badgering and support from the Minister who then had responsibility for pre-school education, the authority recognised the issue and started to address it by getting in a private sector provider. I am all in favour of that, as is the local primary school. There is no dissension at all about private enterprise coming in to fill a gap in public service provision.

The problem is that, after months of wrangling between education officials and local planners--and now the local authority's property services people are trying to take their share by charging an extortionate amount for the land in question, which is in the green belt--we are still no further forward with nursery provision. Passing

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legislation in Parliament does not guarantee provision on the ground. I urge Ministers to be more rigorous in following through in future when such gaps arise, and making sure that local authorities deliver in an extremely important service area.

I support the proposals on crime in the Queen's Speech and give full backing to the tougher measures outlined to deal with it. I certainly welcome the commitment to additional police officers, for which my constituents regularly ask. Again, I shall raise one issue that, I hope, the Home Secretary will address. One of the most common problems that people raise in my surgery and at public meetings is anti-social behaviour on our estates, which is a genuine problem for many whose lives are blighted by the activities of a minority who have no idea what they are doing to the rest of the community--or perhaps they do and just do not care. The idea of the anti-social behaviour orders was a good one. It is right in principle and I am pleased that housing and local authority officials and the police are now working more closely together. The idea of giving responsibility for community safety to local authorities was a good one. Initially, there was much criticism that the orders were not being used--I was equally critical--but the more I hear from local authority officials and the police the more I realise that what was a good idea is difficult to put into practice, because of the way in which the orders were established. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has the same problems in his constituency, because it is next door to mine, and I ask him to reconsider that good idea. The principle does not need changing, but perhaps we should review the use of the orders, so that the police can use them more constructively and energetically than they have been able so far to do. Those are the sentiments of my local police officers, which they have expressed to me.

Transport does not figure largely in the Queen's Speech, but it is mentioned to me regularly. The train service to Sheffield is not a first class service, even if the trains have first class carriages. Trains to Sheffield are much slower than those to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North, which take half an hour less to do the same distance. That is a real problem that has been created and worsened by privatisation and the fragmentation of rail services. We could get a quicker train service to Sheffield by either making track improvements to the midland main line or by having tilting trains that could go faster on the existing track. The problem is that one demands action by the operating company and the other demands action by Railtrack. The two never seem to come together, and no one has decided which is the best way forward. I hope that with the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority we will start to address that issue.

I hope that we will also address the issue of whether the midland main line is the best line to take people to Sheffield. Perhaps the east coast line should be improved and given extra capacity, which would allow a quick line to Sheffield. The franchise for the east coast line is a completely different issue from the franchise for the midland line, but one or the other is the solution to Sheffield's problem. The problem with rail privatisation is the fragmentation of the industry and the lack of a strategic overview, and I hope that the SRA will begin to address those issues.

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On the doorstep, my constituents raise the issue of buses even more frequently than that of rail, because buses are the day-to-day transport for most people in Sheffield. We have made many improvements to our public services in the past four years, and my constituents recognise that, but we have seen little improvement with buses. Indeed, it is questionable whether we are providing a public service at all in many cases. A duopoly has been created between Stagecoach and First Bus--or, as it is laughingly referred to in Sheffield, Secondhand Bus, because the quality of buses provided has deteriorated recently--and if constituents complain about a bus service being removed, I can do nothing but say that it is purely a private decision with no real influence from the public sector.

The Transport Act 2000 has not had time to have an effect. It will promote quality partnerships as the best way forward, but I am not convinced of that. I hope that Ministers will consider franchising, which is seen as a long-stop option in the Act, as the best approach. Unlimited public resources are not available for bus services, but franchising could be a solution. An operator would tender for an area and as well as receiving the right to provide services on profitable routes it would also have the obligation to provide services on less profitable or uneconomic routes. We could have a strategic view from the public sector, with the private sector delivering and having responsibilities as well as rights. I hope that we will come back to that idea in future.

In South Yorkshire--and Sheffield is part of South Yorkshire--


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