Government's Assessment as set out in the Pre-Budget Report 2001 for the Purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993

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Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): Twenty-seven years.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman corrects me from a sedentary position. It is 27 years rather than 20 years. I know that I tend to understate things, and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman helping me out.

I do not know how the Government will finance their plans, but, as the right hon. Member for Norwich, South sagaciously, if undiplomatically, observed recently, the national health service has got worse. A further 12,000 people are waiting more than

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a year for a treatment, and the number who are waiting more than 13 weeks to see a consultant has increased by 152,000. The number of care beds has decreased by 47,000. The chairman of the British Medical Association has said that, under this Government, morale has plummeted to distressingly new depths. We face the significant fact, to which the Government have so far had no answer, that people in Britain are dying when they would not die if they lived in France, Germany or Holland. Those countries have an absence of dogma and the open-mindedness to be prepared to consider ways in which social insurance and private sector funds can complement those of the state in turning ''care'' from a word into a deed. We have not been prepared to contemplate such an approach in this country, and we are suffering as a result. As hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will agree, cancer survival rates in Britain are poor in comparison with those in France. Our record on survival five years after cardiac surgery does not compare with the best performances in the European Union.

Major problems therefore exist in our national health service, and it is not clear that the Government propose to tackle them effectively. It therefore sticks somewhat in my gullet that the Government talk about creating a fairer Britain. What is fair about people languishing on trolleys awaiting treatment? What is fair about people waiting longer on the waiting list to get on the waiting list than they were before Labour took office? What is fair about people dying in this country because they cannot get treatment, when they would not die in such a way if they lived elsewhere in Europe?

The curious feature of the Labour Administration is that they say they are internationalist, and want to give up powers to the European Union, but they are not all that interested in a more prosaic but—from the point of view of the public—helpful way of learning lessons from the European Union. My hon. Friends and I—I do not include the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton in that category—do not want to give up more and more powers to the European Union, because we believe in national self-government, democratic accountability and a concept called national sovereignty. I did not come into the House of Commons in order to sign up to a further arrogation of its powers to institutions that we do not elect and cannot remove. However, unlike Labour Members, I am more than prepared to concede that if we ever had the best national health service in the world, we certainly do not have that now. I would be interested, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Health Secretary, in learning lessons on how a number of public services are delivered more effectively on the European continent than they are here.

Similarly, we are told by the Prime Minister that ''Education, education, education'' is the priority, yet two in five teachers are leaving the profession after three years' service, 80 per cent. of heads say that discipline standards are falling in schools, the performance of 11-year-olds in mathematics has

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declined recently, and there is a continuing chorus of legitimate criticism from teachers, head teachers and governors across the country that they are being belaboured by increased bureaucracy and red tape. The flow of glossy publications, consultation documents and circulars from the Department for Education and Skills continues apace. One head teacher from Surrey complained recently that, during the first nine days of the autumn term, he received no fewer than nine instructions about the way in which he should do his job. That stifles teachers' independence and creativity, and their capacity to perform. We should not commend our record on either health care or education to the European Union.

I could dilate on the Government's grim performance on crime, but I am disinclined to do so.

Mr. Francois: Go on.

Mr. Bercow: I am encouraged by my hon. Friend, but I am genuinely interested in listening to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, who has hotfooted it to the Committee from a surgery in his constituency. I am glad that he is present because, the other day, he doubted whether he would join us. In fact, he was imperious about the matter. He said, ''I am not leaving my constituency before X time, and it is a frightful bore to have to get away to come to the Committee.'' None the less, the hon. Gentleman has made the effort to get here; we are obliged to him, and I want to hear what he says.

The fight against crime is weaker, rather than stronger, than before the Labour shower took office. The Labour party said that there would be more police on the beat and that the fight against crime would be intensified. Since that time, there has been a cut in police numbers of approximately 1,600 and the number of special constables has decreased by 7,000. That is a disturbing phenomenon. In parts of the country, violent crime is increasing sharply and the public's confidence in the capacity of the authorities to tackle the problem is diminishing, not increasing.

Such problems are large, as are transport problems. Britain experiences massive congestion and we have some of the longest commuting times and some of the highest fares in the European Union. The Government's advisers say that our transport system is the worst in the European Union. There has been a substantial reduction in the numbers of bypasses and other road schemes that the Government have undertaken to develop. That comes from an Administration who said that such measures were priorities, that the infrastructure should be bolstered and that we must do better. Labour said that it would make a difference and that our problems would at least be alleviated, if not approach their end. In fact, we have rotten services at rip-off prices. In many parts of the United Kingdom, the quality of service in education, health, transport and the fight against crime would more readily be associated with a banana republic rather than that legitimately expected of an advanced, western, industrialised and capitalist society. That is not to the Government's credit.

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I admit that the Government can boast about some good things. Ministers have not succeeded entirely in squandering the favourable economic legacy that was bequeathed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). However, they are making a fair old fist of it.

Desperate and grievous damage has been inflicted on our countryside. The great majority of the country is having a tough time. People in rural communities are in anguish, and nobody should underestimate the problems that they face. Incomes are declining, there is a belief that the Administration are insensitive, and continuing burdens flow forth from the machinery of government. That makes it more difficult for such people to live their lives satisfactorily. All those problems warrant a mention from the Minister and tackling them requires decent, humane and constructive policies. Such policies have not been forthcoming.

The Government's record is nothing like as bright or rosy as Ministers would have us believe. Given the scale of the problems, there will be almost universal agreement that my contribution to draw attention to them has been astonishingly short. Nevertheless, because I am keen to listen to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton—and any other contributions from hon. Members—I tell you, Mr. Cran, the Minister and members of the Committee what it will be a great disappointment to hear: my remarks are at an end.

11.24 am

Mr. Edward Davey: The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is right to say that I had to cut short one of my two weekly advice sessions. I hold one of them every Monday morning at 8 o'clock, at my surgery, at 23a Victoria road, Surbiton. I consider those sessions to be an important duty, but they do not come before my duties in the House. I was reluctant to cancel that session, because I anticipated that the hon. Gentleman might make a speech like that which he has delivered. Faced with a choice between doing important work for my constituents and listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech, I know where my priorities ought to lie.

The hon. Gentleman speaks like a contender on the BBC Radio 4 programme ''Just a Minute''. If the House were ever to be asked to send a representative to appear on that programme, I would recommend the hon. Gentleman. In future, I hope that the hon. Gentleman not only speaks with his customary fluency but limits his remarks to just a minute. That would be welcomed by all hon. Members, and it would be beneficial to debate in the House.

It was interesting that the hon. Gentleman paid little attention to the pre-Budget report. He talked about the words on the cover, but he did not talk much about the words on the pages in between. He made a few comments on Europe—to disparage it, and to disparage pro-European Government Ministers. I presume that he did not want to talk much about

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Europe because people who were on the pro-European wing of the Conservative party have joined the Liberal Democrats.

However, the hon. Gentleman should have talked about Europe. If he is trying to be a leader of an effective Opposition, he has failed, because we have a motion before us today that is about a Government report on the economy and public finances of the United Kingdom being sent for debate to the European Commission, following an amendment to the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993. That amendment was tabled by euro-sceptics: when the Maastricht Bill was being debated, an amendment to it was tabled by euro-sceptic hon. Members. I have no problem with that. They tabled the amendment to give the House at least an hour and a half to debate the details of important documents published by the Treasury, which were being sent to Brussels. They wanted to ask questions about those documents. They wanted to discover whether they would serve the purpose of looking after the United Kingdom's interests with regard to an important international body, of which we are members.

The Conservative Opposition have not asked such questions today. I shall try to address the question that should be asked and to explain why I do not think that the document is good. My earlier intervention anticipated the subject that I wish to address: I asked, where in the pre-Budget report is the exchange rate mentioned? I made that intervention because, over the coming years, we will be faced—in the House and in the country—with an important economic decision that relates to the Maastricht treaty and to this document: we will have to decide whether the United Kingdom will join the euro. Will we give up sterling, and accept the euro as our legal tender? That is a very important issue, and we must debate it.

 
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Prepared 10 December 2001