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11.24 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I should like to make a plea for help to the deputy Leader of the House. For some time now, I have been trying to get from Ministers information, help and assistance for my constituents, but to no avail. I shall begin with an issue that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), will find very easy because he already knows about it, and it will come as no surprise to him that I want to raise it again today.

In July 2000, the Prime Minister visited Exeter in the company of the Parliamentary Secretary, and he made a promise to my constituents about the A30 between Honiton and Exeter—a road covered in concrete that I discussed in an Adjournment debate on 16 January 2001. The Prime Minister promised the residents who live adjacent to the road that the Government would resurface that very noisy road. In fact, it is deemed to be the most noisy road in Britain.

The fact that a Prime Minister took the trouble to intervene personally in a somewhat localised matter was seen by local people as a very good sign, but I am sorry to have to report that, despite my raising the issue on the Floor of the House and having exchanged umpteen items of correspondence with Ministers, we still have no idea at all when the road will be resurfaced. So the encouragement to my constituents to celebrate following that prime ministerial promise has turned rather sour. Indeed, the Government have said that a list of all the noisy roads in Britain will be produced and that the A30 will be assessed to find out where it will come in the pecking order.

On 23 August 2000, I received yet another letter from the then Minister, Lord Whitty, who said:


We are still waiting. I suppose that if I were asked to choose a title for the issues that I want to raise tonight, I would say, "Nothing to do with me, guv"—spelled either "gov" or "guv." Both spellings apply because all these are matters where the Prime Minister or other Ministers have become involved in something, made a promise and then somehow everything has run into the sand.

I tell the Parliamentary Secretary, whose constituency neighbours mine and whose beaming picture appeared next to the Prime Minister's on that fateful day in July 2000, that I know of no one in the Government who could have more influence on that matter than the hon. Member for Exeter, so I hope that I will not have to return during the debate on the next Adjournment and spoil his Christmas by asking about the issue yet again.

Mr. Tyler: As I mentioned earlier in the debate, I travelled on that the road just last weekend and, yet again, I was amazed at the surface. I wonder whether the hon. Lady can tell us when, how and why that surface was specified for the road in the first place. It is quite extraordinary.

Mrs. Browning: If the hon. Gentleman refers to the Adjournment debate on the subject that I initiated on

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16 January 2001, he will see that I raised the issue before the road was built. He will also see all the detail of how I was misled, orally and in writing, by the Highways Agency and, subsequently, by the contractors, which assured me that what he travelled on last week was something called whisper concrete. [Interruption.] Yes, even the Parliamentary Secretary is laughing, and well he might. Nothing about that surface has anything to do with whispers; it is the noisiest road in Britain, and we would like it to be resurfaced, so I leave that with him.

I have another problem—this time, with education. Uffculme secondary school in my constituency has written to me, and I visited it as a result. We keep hearing Ministers talking about increased funding for education, yet this school for 11 to 16-year-olds, which is, I hasten to add, very good—people move house so that they can get their children into it—has very serious problems. As I was aware that the recess was coming up, I wrote to the Minister for School Standards on 31 May, asking for a meeting, but I did not get a reply, so I had to write again. Only yesterday, nearly two months later, did I get a letter saying that the Minister would not grant my request for a meeting because he did not think that it would help matters as far as Uffculme school is concerned, as the matter is really one for the LEA.

I listened very carefully to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) at the beginning of the debate, which seems almost a lifetime ago, and I recall him saying that after constituents visited him last Saturday, he had secured a meeting with a Minister for this Wednesday, just five days later. I want to put it on record that I am now monitoring the occasions on which Ministers refuse me a meeting. I say that as someone who served for three years as a Minister and never once refused a meeting to a Member of Parliament of any party who asked if they could come and see me. Indeed, sometimes, from the Dispatch Box, I would offer Members a meeting because I felt that it was in their best interests to come and discuss a matter with me personally.

I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that I do not write to Ministers for trivial reasons. Uffculme school is having severe problems. It is having to consider the fact that its statutory obligations cannot be met. Governors were told that if they did not set a balanced budget, the LEA would dismiss them and take over the running of the school. This is not a sink school; it is one of the best schools in my constituency. It has produced a budget but it simply does not provide enough money to meet health and safety requirements, to provide the statutory curriculum, to pay creditors or to meet statutory obligations on special educational needs.

The problem is not that Devon LEA has not passed on the full amount from the standard spending assessment. In his letter to me the Minister admitted that the LEA has passed on the full SSA. Clearly, something is wrong with the education system when such an excellent school, which has never had such problems before, cannot meet its statutory obligations.

I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that when MPs have these serious problems it is not acceptable for Ministers to dismiss them, two months later, by refusing a meeting and thinking that a letter will do—it will not. If I cannot get the Minister to meet me, then I may apply for an Adjournment debate after the recess. I should not have to drag Ministers to an Adjournment debate just to

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have a dialogue with them, but it is up to them—I am sure that they look forward to such exchanges with great pleasure.

I turn now to hospices, another matter of which the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware because he and I cover an area of Devon that shares a hospice in Exeter. Hospice care is funded by the local authorities in Exeter, Mid Devon and East Devon, and it has a crisis. I listened with great interest to what a Labour Member said about the previous Conservative Government, but I have to say that under that Government hospices in Exeter received higher funding than they do today. The situation is dire.

On 7 May, I wrote to the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), on behalf of the hospice in Exeter, and I am still waiting for a reply. I asked whether the Department would consider interim funding to help the hospice with its serious problems. Its budget has been so reduced this year that although it asked for £235,000, it got approximately £20,000, which leaves a massive shortfall. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will have heard about those figures in his constituency postbag.

It is no good Ministers standing at the Dispatch Box and giving us a lot of hype about health funding if, on the ground, our hospitals and hospices cannot continue and are worried about closing. In the same way, I do not want to hear any more waffle from the Chancellor about education, education, education, when excellent schools such as Uffculme cannot meet their statutory obligations.

Ministers appear to be quite divorced. They come to the Dispatch Box to make great flowing statements, but when we get down to the nitty-gritty and say, "Yes, but what about this or that in my constituency?", the answer is, "It's nothing to do with me, guv." We are told that it is the LEA's responsibility, or the health authority's—as though Ministers do not have ongoing responsibility for what happens after they leave the Chamber. It really will not do.

There is another matter that the Government do not want to know about, which I find astonishing. When they entered office, the Government suddenly discovered e-commerce—and a lot of other e-things. The Prime Minister even introduced a whole new plan for delivering e-government. One of the keys to extending opportunities, especially for businesses, is to ensure that throughout the country people have access to broadband, which speeds up access and makes life a great deal easier. However, in my part of Devon, which is rural, small businesses situated in remote areas do not have access to broadband.

One of the problems is that BT has held back from proceeding with the changes that it needs to make. BT has told my local business community that there is not enough demand for broadband, so it will not make the investment. It is a chicken-and-egg situation: if BT does not make the investment, people will not latch on to broadband as a means of accessing the web more quickly and more extensively. There are other options, and on 21 May I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry asking when broadband was likely to be made available to the 01884 exchange area in my constituency. I received a rather anodyne reply that, in essence, said that it was nothing to do with the Government; the decision was for the companies concerned.

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That is not compatible with what we hear Ministers saying at conferences and at the Dispatch Box, or what we read in the Government's reports. One would think that they were at the forefront—at the cutting edge. Ministers keep telling us about the Government services that are to be rolled out through e-this and e-that, but if people cannot access those services, or can access them only from certain parts of the country, it is up the Government to prod BT and other companies to make the services available and to ensure that there is equal opportunity of access throughout the country.

What I have described this evening is a mere soupçon of the dozens of cases that I could have raised. One gets the impression that the Government are at the forefront on some things, but the moment they are challenged on the detail, suddenly it is nothing to do with them; it is for someone else—anybody but a Minister. If I have to return at the Christmas Adjournment debate and raise the same cases yet again, or if I have to raise another set of cases in which Ministers have been reluctant to respond to letters promptly or to answer straightforward written questions, or they have refused meetings—I do not ask for meetings every week; I only ask when the issue is an important one, such as Uffculme school—I hope that the Speaker will take it upon himself to examine the opportunity that we Back-Bench Members of Parliament have to get the sort of service that we deserve from the Government. We are not getting that service at the moment.

I hope that it is not only Conservative Members who are not getting that service. I hope that there is no discrimination in terms of access to Ministers and prompt replies. There are Cabinet Office rules about replies to Members of Parliament, but the rules are not being adhered to, especially in respect of the most difficult questions. I hope that the Minister has a lovely holiday and that he does not have to travel too often on that noisy road, but I hope also that he will put the issues that I have raised tonight at the top of his list, because they are extremely important to the people of my constituency.


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