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Emergency Services

13. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): What plans he has to improve emergency services. [3776]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn): The Department is currently undertaking a review of the provision of emergency care services, with the help of NHS staff. In the meantime, the extra investment that we are making in accident and emergency departments, GPs' out-of-hours services, NHS Direct and, of course, the ambulance service are designed to ensure that more patients can be treated more quickly.

Mr. Plaskitt: In Warwick, we shall be opening a brand new state-of-the-art accident and emergency unit in December. It is the product not only of specific Government funding but of substantial community fundraising. However, attendance figures at the A and E are rising sharply year on year. Is my right hon. Friend confident that, across the programme as a whole, we are investing enough to meet increasing capacity needs?

Mr. Milburn: Yes, I am. Not only are we investing in the front line—A and E services—but, as my hon. Friend will be aware, just last week we made £300 million available to ease pressures on beds in hospitals and to deal with the vexed problem of delayed discharges. Providing that we keep making the investment and implementing reforms alongside it, I am confident that we can get better and faster care to patients.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government have three duties when faced with a biological threat such as anthrax? First, they should ensure adequate intelligence to warn of potential threats. Secondly, they should develop strategies and responses to deal with possible attacks. Thirdly, they should ensure that doctors are given sufficient information

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to maximise early diagnosis. Is he satisfied that he and his colleagues can give the public complete reassurances in those three areas?

Mr. Milburn: I can offer assurance on those three points. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his support on the issue. I have briefed him and the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the necessary preparations that we have made.

It is the Government's obligation to prepare for all eventualities, however remote the risk might be. As right hon. and hon. Members may be aware, there have been a number of suspect incidents today. The emergency services have responded and investigations are taking place. It is important that people remain calm and go about their normal lives. I recognise that this is an anxious time for all concerned, but the incidents have demonstrated that the contingency plans developed by front-line emergency services within the NHS and the police are effective and can be deployed rapidly.

It might be useful and for the benefit of the House if I set out what we have done more generally since the appalling events of 11 September. First, since the atrocities took place, the chief medical officer has reviewed all our plans for protecting the public from any possible biological or chemical attack. Secondly, extensive contingency planning is already in place based on guidance that we issued to the NHS last year, well before the appalling events in New York, Washington and elsewhere in America. New guidance has been issued and we are planning to issue still further guidance.

Thirdly, we have taken the appropriate steps to secure additional supplies of drugs and equipment for use in an emergency. Fourthly, we have cascaded details to doctors about how they can access information from the Public Health Laboratory Service website on signs and symptoms of anthrax. Finally, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, I signed in Washington last week a joint United

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Kingdom-United States agreement on protecting our people from bio-terrorism by pooling our intelligence, our expertise and our planning.

We have taken those steps not because there are specific threats against us, but because it would be foolish to be anything other than vigilant. I believe that we should take great comfort from the fact that in this country we have some of the very best public health experts in the world, and in our emergency services we have people who have a hugely impressive track record of dealing with extremely demanding situations. We shall, of course, keep all our plans under active review.

Dr. Fox: Does the Secretary of State agree that anthrax is, in fact, a low-risk threat? It is not transmitted from person to person and is therefore an ineffective agent for inflicting mass damage. However, it is a good agent of terror if a few cases result in widespread panic. Is it not essential that inside and outside the House we deal with the threat in a proportionate manner, so that we do not create unnecessary fear and thereby do a favour not to the public but to the terrorists?

Mr. Milburn: The hon. Gentleman is right about anthrax. The best expert advice is that it is impossible to pass on anthrax from person to person and, as he knows, we have good plans in place to deal with it. The best intelligence that we have is that it would be extremely difficult for anyone to deliver a quantity of anthrax sufficient to cause harm to a large number of people. However, as we can see from events in America, the result of anthrax attacks has been to spread fear among a large number of people.

I know that many people on both sides of the Atlantic fear both the prospect of further terrorist attacks and the form that they might take. We all understand those concerns, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, it is important that fear does not win. Fear is the terrorists' victory. I repeat: there is no need for public panic. Our response—all our responses—in the House, among the public and in the media is and must be proportionate. Our duty is to go on planning for all eventualities.

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Michelin, Burnley

3.34 pm

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

Patrick Lepercq, Michelin Tyre managing director, and John Lancaster, manager at the Burnley factory, broke that serious and tragic news in Burnley today. Michelin opened its factory in Burnley in 1960; it was the company's second tyre factory in the United Kingdom, the first being the Stoke factory, which opened in the 1920s. Stoke has ceased tyre production—the announcement was made last year—but is to lose another 280 jobs as a result of the latest announcement. The factory in Burnley produced smaller truck tyres.

The news is a major blow to the area, and it is a sad blow to John Lancaster, who has been in touch with me for some time and trying to find a solution to the problems in the tyre industry. He would be the first to say that had it not been for the co-operation of the work force and the unions on site, production would have ceased some years ago. However, that is no consolation to those in Burnley who face the loss of their job, or to their families.

The problem in Burnley is made worse by the fact that it is heavily dependent on the manufacturing sector and aerospace, which are dominant local industries. Other redundancies have already been announced this week at Hurel Hispano and, as we all know, the future looks grim in the aerospace industry at present. Those issues are crucial to Michelin workers, the people of Burnley and the whole manufacturing sector, which is vital to the United Kingdom economy. A debate on the implications of the announcement and the way forward for manufacturing is urgently needed.

Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that he raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24. I cannot, therefore, submit his application to the House.

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Points of Order

3.36 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder what protection you can give Members who are ill informed and misinformed by the Government about their proposals? Last week when Parliament was recalled, I took the opportunity to table a written question about the calling in of a planning application in my constituency. I had a reply from a Minister yesterday, which said that a colleague would consider the matter, but had not yet come to a conclusion. This morning, I received in the post a letter dated 12 October from the east midlands office, informing me that the Secretary of State had decided against calling the matter in. It was disingenuous of the Government to tell me yesterday that no decision had been taken when, in fact, one had already been reached.

Mr. Speaker: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will send me the papers and details, and I will look into the matter.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Pursuant to the final subject raised at Health questions, have you been informed by the House authorities about what we should tell our staff who, on the whole, open our mail and may therefore fear that one of us may receive such substances in our mail? Can you give us any guidance on that matter?

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