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11.37 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I apologise to the House for my absence for a short period earlier this morning. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)—or for what some of us still fondly know as Boothferry—announced his retirement from the leadership stakes of our party. As one of his supporters, I wished to be there to support him. Those who know my right hon. Friend well will understand that the dark horse has been taken away merely to be reshod, not shot. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal from him in the future.

I add my congratulations to the three hon. Members who have so far made their maiden speeches this morning. I understand that there are others to follow. The previous Member for West Bromwich, East, Peter Snape, was a personal parliamentary friend and was known on both sides of the House for his robust debating performance. It will be interesting to see whether his successor is able to develop the same fierce parliamentary skills as Snapey had.

The hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) referred to the welcome announcement for his constituents and for the country of the development of new diesel engines, which I heard, as did many of us, on the wireless this morning. I am sure that that will be good news for his constituents. I wish him and them well. I have a proprietary interest, though not in diesel, as the driver of a modest Ford Escort estate with only 69,000 miles on the clock. If he knows the man who can cure the rattle underneath, I should like to talk to him afterwards.

We welcome the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing). Although the conventions deny us the opportunity to see visitors in the House from these Benches, it is a pleasure to know from her that her mother is present this morning. As the hon. Lady rightly claims, she represents one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country, though not quite as beautiful as North Thanet. I had a dear friend who invited me to go to Perth for a weekend some time ago, to take part in an occupation known as hill walking, which I discovered was a euphemism for mountaineering, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I am glad that we are discussing small firms, because it seems to me that the SNP is turning into a small, family business. In view of the hon. Lady's more

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partisan remarks, if she could simply let me have on a postcard the answer to the West Lothian question, I should be most grateful.

I was hoping to hear the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), and I expect that we will hear it shortly, provided that he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I first met his predecessor in 1974 during the general election campaign when Jim, now Lord Callaghan, was on the hustings and I was working for the BBC. I spent a day going round the country with Jim following the Labour party campaign. That in itself was an interesting experience. We ended the day in Perry Barr where a young man called Jeff Rooker was seeking his first election to Parliament. As we all know, 26 years later Lord Rooker is wearing ermine. It remains to be seen whether his successor follows that far in his footsteps. I suspect that by then we may have a wholly elected upper House, and if we do, it will not be before time. I wish the hon. Gentleman well and I look forward to hearing his speech.

Turning to this morning's debate on small firms, I wish to touch on one general area and then briefly deal with three specific matters: the concerns being expressed by proprietors of residential and nursing homes; the concerns being expressed by the National Federation of Sub- Postmasters and the difficulties that small rural post offices in particular are facing; and the concerns of those engaged in farming, which used to be big business, but is rapidly being turned into small business.

The British Retail Consortium, in a briefing note that has probably been sent to many hon. Members says:

That note sums up much of what has been said here this morning and what has been said to hon. Members on both sides of the House when we visit small firms, retail businesses, hotels, guest houses and the like in our constituencies.

Business wants to make a profit. That was the clear message that came across to me at the last small business breakfast that I held in my constituency just before the general election was called. Business men want to reinvest in modern processes, to grow their businesses and to distribute to shareholders. They want to hedge against rainy days, plough money into pension funds and create employment. They want to create sound and lasting enterprises that they can pass on to their children, their grandchildren or future owners in perpetuity. They do not want to be treated as unpaid tax collectors and social services, hedged around by so much red tape and bureaucracy that they cannot get on with their job.

The difficulties being experienced by the residential and nursing home sector clearly highlights this. One of the National Care Homes Association's particular concerns relates to the regulations shortly to be introduced under the Care Homes Regulations 2001. Under those regulations, care and residential homes will have to notify a new commission of every death that takes place in a home and every serious illness. Let us think about that.

So far as I am aware, every death in the country is recorded by the registrar, so a record already exists. If a person dies under remotely suspicious or contentious

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circumstances, there is a coroner's inquest. A death must be registered by a general practitioner. The medical history of people in residential and nursing homes is almost invariably very well known. I cannot for the life of me understand, and nor can the National Care Homes Association, why this new burden of bureaucracy is being placed upon care homes. What is the point? Why do they have to tell a commission that somebody is very ill? By the nature of their circumstances and their age, people who go into nursing homes tend to be ill, or to become ill. It seems to me that this is yet more bureaucracy run amok.

Prior to this debate, I was astonished to discover that care homes are subject to inspection by nine different authorities: local authority inspectors, health authority inspectors, Health and Safety Executive inspectors, environmental health inspectors, pharmacy inspectors, fire inspectors, Inland Revenue inspectors, national insurance inspectors and local authority contract compliance officers. It is very small wonder that so many nursing and residential homes in my constituency and throughout Kent are going out of business—[Interruption.] I have been completely thrown as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden has entered the Chamber.

We raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Health in February. We pointed out that nursing and residential homes were closing and that this was having a serious impact on the care of the elderly and on employment—nursing and residential homes are considerable employers—and a profound impact on the national health service generally. The Secretary of State told us that he was not surprised that some residential and nursing homes were closing because property prices were rising and people were selling up, but that the number of beds lost was more than compensated for by massive new investment in the health service.

I should like the Secretary of State to visit the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother hospital in Thanet, the Kent and Canterbury hospital in Canterbury, or the William Harvey hospital in Ashford, because there is a queue in every single accident and emergency department. The queues are caused by bed blocking because the hospitals are stuffed full of people who should not be in hospital, do not need to be in hospital and do not wish to be in hospital. There is nowhere for them to go because the residential and nursing homes have closed. Those homes have closed because of the additional burdens of costs and regulations that have been placed upon them. Indeed, 60 per cent. of the costs in residential and nursing homes are wages. For an 18-bed residential home the increase in costs this year as a result of the statutory minimum wage will be £10,000. That 18-bed home will receive a £5,000 increase from fees. Where will the other £5,000 come from?

About seven years ago, a nursing home that I was told about invested a considerable sum of inevitably borrowed money to build 10 new bedrooms. Each bedroom was about 10 sq m; they satisfied all the regulations in place at the time and complied with every brand-new, up-to-date local authority requirement. All the bedrooms had lavatories and wash basins en suite, which is what the elderly clients indicated that they would like. The users were happy, the authority was happy, the proprietors were happy. Now, under the regulations, to satisfy the demand for more square footage—although granny, frankly, is not

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going to leap out of bed and play football in it—the loos and wash basins, which the clients use and want, have to be taken out. That is arrant nonsense.

The net effect is that the proprietors—people who care about their business and their clients—have had enough, so they are closing. In Kent, hundreds of beds have been lost in the past 18 months and more will follow. If that is true in Kent, my guess is that it is true in every constituency that makes this sort of provision. The effect of that on the health service cannot be underestimated. The Secretary of State for Health, never mind the Minister responsible for small business, will have to come to the Dispatch Box very soon and tell us where these patients—these clients—will go. My guess is that this winter we will face a serious crisis. I look to those on the Government Front Bench for answers.

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