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Foot and Mouth

7. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the regional co-ordination of policy relating to the foot and mouth outbreak. [9287]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The Government offices in the regions have supplied staff at all levels to regional operations centres responding to foot and mouth disease. Policy matters continue to be the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with whom my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has had a number of informal discussions.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Minister for that reply. Her Department is responsible for regional co-ordination, so has it assessed how policy was handled in the worst affected areas of Devon, North Yorkshire and, especially, Cumbria? Will the House have an opportunity to debate Devon county council's report on the mishandling of the situation by the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and will she agree to a full public inquiry into the handling of foot and mouth?

Mrs. Roche: The Government have already announced the setting up of two national inquiries and they will begin straight away. She is right to say that lessons have to be learned, and the inquiry that took place in Devon will feed through into the two national inquiries.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that the Government offices made an enormous contribution, with staff working very hard and long hours to deal with the outbreak. As part of the inquiries and more generally, we will examine how those offices operated. I pay tribute to the Government offices in her region that worked so hard and diligently.

Hugh Bayley (City of York): Will my hon. Friend accept that not just farming, but the whole rural economy, has been hit by foot and mouth? In particular, the leisure and tourism industries have been hit, so when the Government co-ordinate their response to regenerate the economy of rural areas, will they pay adequate attention to tourism?

Mrs. Roche: We certainly will. It is right to focus on tourism, and that is why I was delighted to spend part of last Easter in my hon. Friend's wonderful constituency.

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Disabled Employees

8. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): What steps are being taken to increase the numbers of people with disabilities in employment in each Department of Government. [9288]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Government are committed to employing disabled people, and all Departments have targets to increase the number of disabled people they employ. Good progress is being made, but a lot more work needs to be done.

Mr. Clarke: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that all the evidence shows that people with disabilities have an outstanding record once they are given an opportunity to work? Will the Government therefore redouble their efforts to make sure that opportunities are available at every level in the civil service and that those opportunities extend to people with learning difficulties?

Mr. Leslie: My right hon. Friend touches on the precise point: diversity is not simply about reflecting the nation for its own sake, but about enriching the skills base and experiences across the civil service. Disabled people have a great deal to offer to improving public services throughout the nation. A variety of different tasks are under way in the Cabinet Office to increase the proportion of disabled people in the civil service, but more work needs to be done.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [9309] Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 31 October.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): I have been asked to reply.

The House will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in the middle east. He was in Syria earlier today and is now in Saudi Arabia. His visit to the middle east emphasises the enormous importance that the Government attach to building the widest possible coalition against the scourge of international terrorism. It also re-emphasises the Government's total determination to do all that we can to reinvigorate the middle east peace process. My right hon. Friend has been tireless in his efforts on both those matters, and I am sure that the House will wish him well.

Mr. Brazier: In the light of the rather complacent reply on emergency planning for terrorism given a moment ago by the Parliamentary Secretary, when will the Government sort out some radios so that the police, fire brigade and ambulance service can talk to each other, and to the military, on the same frequency during a crisis?

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The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: It is undoubtedly true that a number of lessons have been learned from the problems of foot and mouth and, in particular, flooding, when increased communication between the military, the police service and the fire brigade was necessary. Some work has been done on that. It is now being handled by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the contingency committee. We will do everything possible to improve communication.

Q2. [9310] Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): The Government recognise that even in these troubled times problems at home remain important. My right hon. Friend visited Burnley recently and met the taskforce investigating the aftermath of the disturbances in Burnley in June. He also saw some of the 3,500 empty houses in my constituency and will be aware of the redundancies at Michelin as a result of the factory closure and job losses in the aerospace industry. Is it not a fact that the Government believe that the problems can be resolved only by a Labour Government working with local councils? Will he undertake to visit Burnley at an early date to show that the Government give their full support to Burnley borough council in its efforts to resolve those problems?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: How could I possibly disagree with such a conclusion? Indeed, how could I resist an invitation to visit Burnley? I shall certainly take that into account when I am in the area.

My hon. Friend made his point about the housing problem clear to me when I visited Burnley some time ago. The council has, I think, received £2 million for housing investment. He also mentions job losses at Michelin. That is a concern. Although there have been some job gains in his area, Burnley is worried about job losses, the need to do more about housing and the recent disturbances. Lord Clarke's report is considering those matters and one of my ministerial colleagues is also investigating them, with a view, we hope, to reporting in December. However, I will visit my hon. Friend's constituency if I get the opportunity in the near future.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the first objective of the current campaign in Afghanistan is now the removal of the Taliban?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new position as deputy Leader in the House. He has held that job for two different Prime Ministers, which shows he has pretty shifty footwork.

Our objectives are clear. Yesterday's Hansard shows that the right hon. Gentleman asked about those objectives and that they were confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. They remain the same. In a speech yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that our objectives are clear. Achieving the removal of the Taliban is not a clear objective, but it is a possible consequence of the Taliban giving protection to bin Laden, because the United Nations resolution made it

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absolutely clear that anyone in that position declares themselves to be an enemy. That is clearly relevant to our objectives.

Mr. Ancram: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his initial comments. He shows himself to be highly prescient in predicting the future of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. He will indeed shortly become Prime Minister and I shall be pleased to serve him in that position.

Returning to the current crisis, will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the greatest obstacle to humanitarian aid in Afghanistan is the Taliban regime, that the best way to avert humanitarian disaster is to replace the Taliban with a broad-based Administration, and that the military policy is in a very real sense the humanitarian policy?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we have humanitarian objectives. In addition, we have always said that the diplomatic action was of equal importance to the military action in restoring to Afghanistan a Government who are acceptable to the people. As he knows, discussions about possible alternatives are continuing in the UN. In the meantime, we have rightly taken military action to get rid of the bases where terrorists are trained.

Mr. Ancram: Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm that, contrary to some recent comment, the purpose of the air campaign has been to degrade the Taliban's military capability, to undermine their ability to promote or shelter terrorism and to curtail their ability to oppress their own people? Does he agree that the air campaign has been an appropriate first phase in achieving the agreed overall objectives in the war against terrorism, but that the time has now come to set out clearly the specific objectives of the next phase, which will presumably involve the use of ground forces?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I certainly agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman has said about the military action and what it has achieved so far in terms of degrading the capacity for terrorist activity in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The whole House agrees on the need to consider long-term objectives for the long haul. The statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday answered some of the questions. He said that we will now begin "a steady process" that will continue over the winter, building up to spring next year,

That answers all three questions to which we have so far addressed ourselves.

Q3. [9311] Jim Knight (South Dorset): Is my right hon. Friend aware that recent improvements in school standards in Dorset, while welcome, have been achieved in spite of unfair funding through the standard spending assessment? A child in Dorset currently attracts £132 less than a child in neighbouring Hampshire. Is that fair,

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and are the Government still committed to reforming local government finance and ensuring that all our children in all our schools receive fair funding?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: It is quite nice to answer a question from a Labour Member for South Dorset, where we launched our campaign and gained a considerable victory at the general election. I have no doubt that Labour's record on education finance and the improvements that we were able to make played a major role in that victory.

A lot has been done, but a lot more remains to do. Reforming our education funding system is an important priority and we must get the new formula right. When I was Secretary of State at the relevant Department, I asked local authorities for their recommendations on SSA formulas. They came up with 24 different formulas. The task is not easy, but at least we can say that since 1997–98 education spending in my hon. Friend's constituency has increased in real terms by 20 per cent. That is a considerable improvement. In addition, Dorset's SSA for 2001–02 has risen by £7 million to more than £151 million. None the less, changes must be made to that form of financing, and we are committed to making them.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): We wish the Prime Minister well in his diplomatic mission, not least because bin Laden poses a threat to just about every Muslim country and every Muslim community in the world, as well as to the west.

May I turn to domestic issues? Bearing in mind the fact that, over the last few weeks, the Government have reversed their policies on Railtrack, cannabis, vouchers for asylum seekers and possibly even student fees, which are the subject of a review, is their second term going to be devoted to undoing the more misguided policies of their first?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I must say, as someone who was involved with Railtrack, but without going into individual policies, that rail privatisation was quite disastrous; to be fair, that was admitted by Conservative Front Benchers at the time. Railtrack went into administration because it had insufficient resources, not because the Government were not giving it any more—[Interruption.] The Government gave billions more to that organisation, which was constantly asking for more; every year meant £1 billion more in demand. That showed incompetence in handling the matter, which was flawed by privatisation, and we will not take any blame for that. That is the reality. If we change some things, is that so wrong? If we implement a new policy in those areas—on cannabis or on things to do with student financing—we look to see whether it is working, take proper advice and act on the advice. That is what I would call good government.

Mr. Beith: In thanking the Deputy Prime Minister for that rather refreshing response, I invite him to pay attention to the privatisation of London Underground and of air traffic services and the denial of free personal care to the elderly as three more policies that it would be a good idea to review and change.

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The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: That is so typical of the Tories—I mean the Liberal party. I do not see much difference between Liberals and Tories anyway, so forgive me for that mistake; they are all opposition of one form or another.

There is no privatisation of London Underground; the assets are to be owned by the people and there will be public accountability. Yes, we are using the resources of private industry to reinvest the assets and rebuild the underground. We think that that is right so, by any stretch of the imagination, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that it is privatisation.

Of course, a different formula was used for NATS; I think that that decision was right, although I know that Members can tell me to look at those who are lobbying outside. However, we will wait to see whether that produces the investment and modernisation needed by NATS and the underground; we are not ideological about that, but we will make sure that we will more than double the public investment to deal with the massive disinvestment under the 18 years of Tory rule.

Q4. [9312] Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Last week's announcement by the IRA and the subsequent response from the Ulster Unionist party has reinvigorated the Good Friday agreement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are extreme minorities that have never supported the agreement and have taken every opportunity in the last year or so to undermine progress? Does he further agree that the next step in finding long-lasting peace in Northern Ireland is for all paramilitaries to decommission their weapons, every last one of them?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: Indeed, that is a very important objective. The House will recognise that there was a significant, ground-breaking achievement and pay tribute to the leadership not only of the Government but of the Opposition when they were in government. The process started some time ago, and we congratulate all those who were involved in bringing this and the Good Friday agreement about. It shows that politics is working, which is an important lesson to be taken into account, perhaps no more so than in the middle east itself.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the crucial importance of the sustainability of decommissioning, as was required. Of course, we hope that the loyalist paramilitaries will respond by decommissioning arms themselves. Indeed, they were the first to contact the decommissioning commission, and it is vital to the success of the peace process that they continue and complete that process.

Q5. [9313] Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of the crisis affecting care for the elderly, which has brought about the closure of 48 care homes in my constituency in the past five years, and of the fact that the Isle of Wight council predicts the loss of another 450 beds—15 per cent. of the total—in the next two years because homes cannot afford to implement the Government's Care Standards Act 2000? Does the

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right hon. Gentleman accept that he cannot stop bed blocking in hospitals if there are no residential home beds into which elderly people can move?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. I congratulate him on his victory in the Isle of Wight at the expense of the Liberals, about which I shed few tears. The question of how we deal with care of the elderly is a serious one. It may be possible for some of the people in hospitals to be treated in homes. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made available £300 million to improve expenditure in this area. The difficulties that we are encountering have come about partly as a result of the privatisation of care homes by the previous Administration. Many have closed because they find it much more profitable to sell at high property prices than to continue to operate as homes.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): What financial, political and military role does my right hon. Friend see the Islamic nations playing in post-conflict Afghanistan?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: We have made it clear that we want consensus on these matters, particularly among the countries that border Afghanistan, which will have an important part to play in a post-war situation. The United Nations has brought the parties together to discuss that. We all want to see agreement and the end of the military conflict. That is why the emphasis is not only on military but on diplomatic and financial aspects, which will all form part of the final settlement.

Q6. [9314] Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that 11 per cent. of beds in Suffolk hospitals are being blocked by delayed transfers, causing many cancelled operations, trauma for patients and their families and terrible strains on NHS staff? Our hospitals are at maximum capacity or routinely on critical alert. Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge the disappointment and concern of my constituents about the current state of the NHS, recall that grotesquely misleading campaign slogan, "24 hours to save the NHS", and apologise for it?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I will certainly not apologise for the fact that the Government have put more resources into the health service than any previous Administration, not only in absolute terms but as a proportion of gross domestic product. Often, the failure to achieve the objectives that we have set is due not to lack of money but to inadequate management. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the beds situation. It is a matter that he has pursued in the past, and under the Tory Administration there was a reduction in beds. For a short period under our Administration, hospitals continued to reduce bed numbers, but for the first time in a long time my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has been able to increase the number of beds in our hospitals. We know what we need to do, we have provided the resources and we will make it a decent health service, after it was run down by the Conservatives.

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North): I welcome the consultation document launched today on action to tackle

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abandoned cars, which pollute and blight our environment and attract crime. Will my right hon. Friend give me a guarantee that as soon as the consultation is closed he will make sure that rapid action is taken to give local authorities the powers to deal effectively with this blight on our local environment?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The whole House will agree with what my hon. Friend says. Many of us are receiving complaints about the many empty cars that are left in the streets. It is, indeed, a considerable problem. The statement made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions gives local authorities powers to remove vehicles more quickly. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The measures that have been announced today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State give local authorities more powers to remove vehicles more quickly. They will be able to remove some vehicles in as little as 24 hours. The House should recognise the problem in places such as Lewisham, which previously had about 600 abandoned cars per year but now has about 6,000. That is a problem of considerable difficulty. The House will recognise that our extra powers and consultation, which include toughening up the DVLA licensing requirements, will deal with these problems. I have made inquiries: of the 6,000 cars in Lewisham, none was a Jaguar.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): I am sure that the House was highly enlightened by that answer from an expert. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me why he finally decided not to publish an annual report this year?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: It was called the general election, and we had a majority of 167.

Mr. Ancram: Is not the real reason that there was no annual report the fact that a truthful report would have made extremely uncomfortable reading for the Government? We now know that 50,000 care beds have been closed in the past four years, half of all people wait more than an hour to see a doctor in casualty, class sizes in secondary schools are their largest for a generation, almost half of all teachers leave within three years of joining the profession and police numbers are the lowest for more than a decade. By failing to publicise the report, are not the Government seeking to avoid democratic accountability for all these public service failures?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I recall most of those arguments being put during the election campaign. We put the alternatives and delivered on those promises—and the majority was 167.

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Mr. Ancram: Does the right hon. Gentleman remember what he told the House on 30 July 1998? He said:

What I want to know is, whatever has happened to democratic accountability since then? Is it not yet another victim of the Government's obsession with news management and spin? Has not the annual report become another political piece of bad news that they have decided without ceremony to bury?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: There comes a time when one thinks of the phrase, "Stop digging." We put our record in our manifesto, while the criticism was made by the Tory manifesto. The result was overwhelming. It was the same sort of result that we had in our first election, and I am sure that we are heading for a third one that will go the same way.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): Has my right hon. Friend, like me and many others, read the newspaper stories about Muslims leaving this country to fight for the Taliban? Will he ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to ensure that, if those reports are true and any British citizens are leaving for that purpose, they never set foot in this country again?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: My hon. Friend will recall that we took action last year in the Terrorism Act 2000 to deal with some of these problems. When there has been a breach of law in this country—one can think of a number of areas where that may be possible if such activities can be proven to have occurred—action will be taken by the appropriate authorities.

Q7. [9315] Andrew George (St. Ives): Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that, despite the fact that Cornwall is the poorest region in the United Kingdom, the Government, according to this month's BusinessAge magazine, still take £300 million a year more in taxes than they put back in services? Local community regeneration efforts are being frustrated by meddlesome Government quangos and mountains of bureaucracy. Is he aware that Cornwall wants not to get even, but to get on? When will we be given the tools and money to do exactly that?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The hon. Gentleman will know that I visited Cornwall and St. Ives, where I spent a holiday recently, and I know full well how people there feel about these matters. He will know also that they are very appreciative of the negotiation of objective 1 funding brought about by this Government. He will know also that they are very grateful for the regional development agency, which the Opposition would abolish if they ever came to power. The agency has played an important part in redeveloping the Cornish economy. The hon. Gentleman may be able to show some differences in public spending figures, but I am not sure whether they are true. Inevitably, the future

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of Cornwall is a lot more rosy now than it was before, and that is because we have a Labour Government with a few Liberal Democrats elected down there.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the problems caused by heroin in this country are born in Afghanistan? Does he further agree that, once new arrangements are in place in Afghanistan and the current phase in the conflict ends, it will be important that the source of 90 per cent. of the heroin that comes into this country is cut off as much as possible, if not completely?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The whole House will agree with my hon. Friend. Some 90 per cent. of the cannabis in this country comes from that part of the world. The first condition is that we have a Government there who are sympathetic to dealing with the problem. Clearly, the Taliban are not, which is another reason why we should be taking the kind of action that we are.

Q8. [9316] Angus Robertson (Moray): I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister is aware that the key issue of regional air services was debated this morning in Westminster Hall. Does he agree with the majority of people in the highlands and the north of Scotland that air links to Gatwick from Inverness—and to Heathrow, soon—are of key importance? Will he give a commitment that the Government will more than consider a public service obligation order to help secure the vital Inverness to Gatwick air link?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: These are essential questions about airports and aviation policy. The hon. Gentleman may know that the Department is considering and developing a White Paper for production within a short period. These matters have been affected by the debate on terminal 5, and anyone who knows about that subject knows that it has made the production of a White Paper difficult. He makes an important point, but he will know that I cannot say whether we will make a public service obligation order. However, I will pass on his comment to the relevant Secretary of State and I will see that he gets a proper reply.

Q9. [9317] Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham): Can the Deputy Prime Minister explain the Government's strategy for ensuring that local authorities are encouraged, equipped or sometimes kicked into dealing with quality of life issues such as dumped rubbish, abandoned cars, dog fouling and dirty public spaces? Young people in my constituency who are growing up amid such neglect are given little incentive to care for their surroundings.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: Since coming to the House, my hon. Friend has made it clear that he finds the issues of the quality of life in his constituency very important and has pursued them with some vigour. My earlier announcement was on the removal of cars, on which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) have been campaigning. What we have announced will

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lead to a vast improvement in the quality of life in those areas where people have been bitterly complaining about these matters. Many things affect the quality of life in local authority areas. One is the numbers of police and wardens, which are being increased, and that should help. Also, the reforms that we have been making to local government will make it much more accountable. The best value principle, which we brought in, is a good way of improving and taking into account quality of life issues in a way that compulsory competitive tendering did not.

Q10. [9318] Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that today is the deadline for the Government to apply for £57 million of agrimonetary compensation from the European Union for Britain's hard-pressed arable farmers, which would help farmers throughout the United Kingdom, and not least in my constituency? Given that a recent report suggested that farmers were happier to have the Army than DEFRA officials on their land, would not applying for that compensation go some way towards restoring the countryside's faith in the Government's agriculture policy?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I have no doubt that the farmers did not mind DEFRA officials bringing them the money and support that we give to the rural industry. That did not come with the Army. Both the Army and DEFRA have contributed

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to dealing with the difficulties in rural areas. The White Paper that we produced on rural communities is also a major contribution to improving the quality of life there.

To be frank, I am not sure whether this is the last day. [Hon. Members: "It is."] I will accept that. A lot of brilliant Opposition Members know that, but I do not. I will make it my business to get on to the Department and see whether we can get a response today.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my constituent, Audrey Anderson, who last night won the community nurse of the year award? Will he also reaffirm the Government's commitment to ensuring that our nurses and doctors continue to get the extra investment that they need if they are to make the national health service once again the best in the world?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: Yes, I certainly think that everyone in the House would want to congratulate Audrey on the presentation that was made in recognition of the work that she has done. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made the presentation. This serves to remind us of the scale of the increase in nurses and doctors that not only occurred in the first four years of this Administration but continues now. They are all making an important contribution to improving the quality of our health services. Quite frankly, there will not be an improvement in quality unless we get the extra doctors and nurses, because they really make the difference.

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