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Geraint Davies: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the current occupancy rate of private nursing homes is 88 per cent. and that the view is that they can take up to 93 per cent., given that there is a certain amount of turnover? Is he aware that the increase in social services investment from the Government to pay for the added costs that he mentioned such as minimum wages is about 12 per cent.? Inevitably, the increased cost must be borne by local authorities which receive more money to match the needs. I accept that there are localised problems and that bed blocking exists. However, such problems can be overcome when people with decent skills are paid decent wages; otherwise, such homes employ slave labour and provide poor service to vulnerable clients.

Mr. Gale: I have to speak as I find. I have been visiting the residential and nursing care homes in my constituency for 18 years. When I first became a Member of Parliament in 1983, it is true that there were some appalling premises. They were run badly and were known, grotesquely but probably rightly, as granny farms. Throughout the 1980s, the Conservative Government introduced sensible regulation and changes, and imposed sensible requirements. Proprietors were able to gain a reasonable return on a reasonable investment while providing a high standard of care and attention and very good qualified care assistants to look after the patients. Those people were, possibly, underpaid in comparison with those who go out at night and stack shelves at Asda. However, in fair terms, while I am quite sure that the proprietors would have liked to pay them more, they were not doing too badly.

The hon. Gentleman must recognise what many of us have recognised when we have visited or been in constituencies in which massive job losses are threatened. I recall fighting a by-election in Birmingham, Northfield, when the then Government were accused of winding down what was known in those days as Austin—the Longbridge plant—and of reducing the number of jobs from 14,000 to 9,000. However, the choice was not between 14,000 and 9,000 but between 9,000 and none.

My constituents who are and have been employed in nursing and residential care homes value and enjoy their jobs. They do not want to be priced out of business, thank you very much. As for the Government's investment, again, I have to speak as I find. In Kent, over the past winter, we experienced bed blocking. Too late in the day, the Secretary of State for Health, out of panic, threw

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£700,000 at Kent county council so that it could buy some beds. First, the space did not exist because so many nursing home beds had gone. Secondly, the going rate for some of the care provided should be £500, but is currently £340 a week. In a panic, the authority said, "We have been given a bit more money so we had better pay a bit more." However, that is short-term money, not long-term money, unless the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) is going to take the Chancellor's position and say that he will make that year-on-year change in funding. That has not happened, and the money is not there.

Geraint Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gale: The hon. Gentleman made a very long speech and he also made a fairly long intervention.

The money is not there. The Chancellor is not giving the money to Kent county council or to other similar authorities. It is not good enough for the Government to pile burden upon burden on local authorities without providing the resources—the means to justify the will.

I wish to move on because I know that there are hon. Members who wish to make their maiden speeches, and I want to hear them. However, this is an opportunity for us to make some important points.

The concerns of the sub-postmasters are well known. Sub-post offices are going out of business at far too fast and undesirable a rate. Those of us who represent constituencies that embrace both towns and villages are acutely aware—this is not a partisan point—that rural villages depend heavily on key services, including the village school, but particularly on the local post office. It is the place where the villagers gather on certain days of the week, if only to collect their benefits, pensions and whatever. It caused a great deal of alarm when the Government said that they would take much of that work away.

The Secretary of State has given an assurance that anyone in receipt of pensions or benefit can have a Post Office card account and anyone can have a Pat 14 Account. Will everyone who wishes to have a Post Office card be allowed to have one, or will the dead hand of the Treasury come along and say, "Hang on a minute, this is costing us far too much. Pensioners are choosing to have their benefits paid this way rather than directly into bank accounts, which is what we would really like them to do, although we cannot say so because the post offices would scream blue murder." Will there be a ceiling on the issue of cards, or will everyone who wants one be able to have one? It is a straightforward question. If the Minister does not know the answer, I invite him to write to me. If the number of cards is limited, the income stream will be useless to the network, and still more post offices will shut.

I represent a constituency that is largely urban in its population, but largely rural in its landscape. All of us who represent such constituencies have to recognise the crisis in farming. Farm incomes have fallen dramatically. I was not joking when I said that many farms used to be big businesses and are now small ones. Many small farms are seriously struggling.

We have to look—I say "we" because again, this is not a party political point, although there will be differences of opinion about how the problem should be addressed—

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at the difference between farmgate prices and supermarket prices. The gap is widening. A year ago, the gap between the price of a dozen eggs at the farm gate and in the supermarket was £1; now it is £1.25. It seems to so many people who used to believe that they were providing a service to the country—putting the breakfast on our table, if you like—that the balance is totally out of kilter. They work day and night, sometimes literally 365 days a year, to deliver a high-quality product for which they do not receive a fair price.

Given all the other vicissitudes, including the obvious knock-on effects of foot and mouth on rural tourism and on the incomes of farms that may have diversified into a couple of cottages for let, if we do not do something about farm incomes now, never mind in six months, those businesses will have gone for good. It is a cri de coeur, but I urge the House to take on board the plight not only of the obvious victims of foot and mouth—although, Lord knows, the farmers who have lost their flocks and herds are important enough—but of others who, at the periphery of agriculture are at this very moment, as we sit here, losing their livelihoods.

I conclude with this thought. Business is blessed with courage, innovation, intellect and willingness to work hard to achieve. Left to its own devices with light-touch regulation, British business can beat the world. It is the job of politicians to create the framework within which that can happen. We are far too good at change for the sake of change, meddling and trying to mend things that are not broken. We do the business of this country no service when we do that.

11.59 am

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) and for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) and the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), who is just leaving the Chamber, on their excellent maiden speeches.

I want to say a few words about my predecessor, Jeff Rooker. Before his retirement from this House, Jeff served as the Member for Perry Barr for 27 years. While I was campaigning, it became obvious how popular he was; he still has the great respect of many thousands of his former constituents. As the House knows, Jeff served the previous Labour Government as a senior Minister and, as a Member of another place, continues to serve the present Government. He will be a hard act to follow, and I wish him well in the other place.

My constituency is very much part of the fabric of the city of Birmingham. It is a large urban constituency which runs from a few hundred yards from the Hawthorns, the home of West Bromwich Albion, right down to Villa Park, the home of Aston Villa. It is also the home of the Perry Barr and Alexandra stadiums—the first for canine runners chasing hares, and the second for human runners chasing medals, where Birchfield Harriers produce many successes.

In many respects my constituency has prospered, thanks to Government initiatives, including the new deal. Because of the prudent running of the economy, unemployment has fallen considerably. However, there remain pockets of stubborn deprivation that need to be targeted with special initiatives. I welcome the new deal

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for communities in Handsworth and the single regeneration projects in both the Handsworth and the Sandwell wards.

There is another example of a place where special help involving a multi-agency approach could succeed by piloting special initiatives: the Perry Villa estate in my constituency. About 300 families live on the estate. Unemployment is higher than average. There is a high perception of crime, a lack of skills and a poor environment. We have set up a residents association, but we now need help to improve housing, set up play areas for children, give people opportunities to learn new skills, and reduce the fear of crime. That can be achieved only by a multi-agency approach, with the health authority, local businesses, the city council, further education institutions and the police—but above all, the community—all having their say. We must break down artificial agency barriers and work in a more integrated way.

Another example is the approach made to me by the Rookery road traders association. The traders very much want to play a part, working with local agencies, in improving that urban shopping area. However, like Perry Villa, they need help. The will of the people is there, but we need help from the bottom up for these initiatives to work. Let us give more and more encouragement to local people to improve their lives and environment with the help of joined-up local and national government.

There are many pensioners living in Perry Barr. Labour's first term did much for pensioners, with the minimum income guarantee, winter fuel allowances, the reduction of VAT on home energy and free television licences for the over-75s.

My constituency and Birmingham as a whole contain a huge number of small businesses, ranging from local newsagents run by families to small and medium-sized manufacturing companies. Although the city is synonymous with large industries—in particular, car manufacturing—Birmingham has, for more than a century, been a cradle of small businesses. Obviously, there are far fewer metal-bashing based companies now, but my constituency can boast of many new 21st-century businesses. It is still true today to say, "If it is not made in Birmingham, it is not made anywhere."

Small businesses in Birmingham are benefiting from new and more relevant support arrangements. The Small Business Service, working with the city council's economic development department, is leading in the provision of support to new and existing businesses. Small businesses need clear, usable support. They need access to help in developing financial and payroll systems, clarity in tax matters and in health and safety and environmental legislation, and simple and usable advice on grants and other start-up support.

A fresh spirit of enterprise exists in my constituency, and established businesses are being supported in better ways. In Perry Barr we have a business park, which extends over nearly a square mile, where growing companies are locating and state-of-the-art buildings provide the kind of accommodation that modern companies need.

Birmingham has the largest employment zone in the United Kingdom, and better links and pathways are being provided to get people into jobs. We must support our

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traditional manufacturers in engineering and the sectors that actually make things. Because of the current challenging market conditions and the need to improve productivity to global levels, we must ensure that the race to modernise and diversify our economy does not leave those firms behind. We must ensure that skills are further developed among our workers, in partnership with management, to meet the challenge of competition.

I applaud the work of our local universities in reaching out to businesses in new and relevant ways. The university of Central England at Perry Barr, together with those at Aston and Birmingham, has been showing the way, in partnership with the city council and the regional development agency, in providing first-class support to adopt new technologies. However, some sectors seem slow to adapt. The lesson is clear: we must help our businesses to take on board new technologies and economic change in a faster, better and smarter way. That involves building on the approaches that work best for our local businesses.

We have many examples of clusters of businesses, such as jewellery and new media. The design space 2000 project at our local university—UCE—is an example to the country of intelligent and joined-up working, with business, education and local government all working together in new fruitful ways.

I welcome the establishment of the Phoenix fund for Birmingham, which particularly focuses on women and support for ethnic minority groups. I hope that the Government's new initiative on the neighbourhood renewal fund, announced by the Minister for Housing and Planning recently, will be targeted, in part, towards helping small businesses to improve the quality of their outlets and workplaces.

Although this debate on small businesses is taking place at the end of the parliamentary week, I trust that that does not undermine its importance. Small businesses are vital to the economy of my city and to the country at large.

Today is Friday the 13th, so some may think that I am chancing my luck by speaking in the House on this day and date, but I cannot be that unlucky, as I was born 40 years ago. Some may say that life begins at 40; certainly my parliamentary life does. To represent Perry Barr in the House is a great honour, especially because from the age of nine I—like many of my good friends, such as Lord Hattersley and the former city leader, Sir Richard Knowles—have been an adopted Brummie. I hope that I can emulate them and achieve a fraction of what they achieved in their many years of service to the city.

There is another adopted Brummie to whom I owe so much—my late father, who came to the city in the late 1940s. My elation at being elected to Parliament for a seat in the city that so readily adopted me was tempered with sadness, because he did not live to see that day. I hope that I can honour him by serving my constituents with humility and determination in the years to come.

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