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Session 2001- 02
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Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Government's Legislative Programme

Welsh Grand Committee

Tuesday 3 July 2001



[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Government's Legislative Programme

Motion made and Question proposed [this day],

    That the Committee has considered the matter of the Government's legislative programme as outlined in the Queen's Speech as it relates to Wales.—[Mr. Paul Murphy.]

4 pm

Question again proposed.

Alan Howarth (Newport, East): I had been on my feet for a few minutes when you wisely and humanely released the Committee at 1 o'clock, Mr. Griffiths. I am conscious of the number of hon. Members who want to contribute to the debate so I shall wind up reasonably briefly.

I was talking about the history of Treasury niggardliness and mismanagement over the years. Although in most respects, things have greatly improved, there is a huge amount of ground to make up when considering the funding needs of public services. The Government have a much better ambition than their predecessor. Their achievements in respect of the health service are already substantial, notwithstanding the dismal litany of negativism from the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) this morning, or the grandstanding at the British Medical Association conference this week, where much of the rhetoric was extravagantly self-indulgent.

The Government's commitments to the future are more impressive; I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his part in securing highly positive funding settlements for Wales and in opening up major possibilities for us. With the settlements for the rest of the United Kingdom, that means future commitments in expenditure on education and health of 5 per cent. and 6 per cent. in real terms over a sustained period: a 10-year plan for the future of the health service. We are already beginning to see the benefits in Wales.

I welcomed the announcement by Jane Hutt, the Minister for Health and Social Services in the Assembly, about additional funding for orthopaedic surgery, which has long been a notoriously inadequate aspect of the health service, especially in Gwent. Even beyond the Government's major funding commitment, more money is likely to be needed if we are to satisfy the requirements of a decent society for a proper standard of public services. If we are to match the average levels of funding in counterpart countries in the European Union, let alone the standards of the best on the continent of Europe, we have a problem. Although the voters seem to set strict limits on what they are willing for the Government to raise in taxation, the European Union sets strict limits on what Governments may raise in borrowing because of the provisions of the Maastricht treaty and the stability pact. Where, then, is the money to come from? If it is true that we will need funding beyond what is already planned, I see no alternative other than to mobilise private investors to make a further contribution.

The case for the involvement of the private sector in the provision of public services is based not upon the superior qualities of management in the private sector—there is no inherent reason why public sector management should not be at least as effective as private sector management—but upon the overall need for a greater aggregate of funding. If we need to call upon private sector investment to make a large contribution, it presents us with a conundrum: how in the circumstances that we foresee and in the plans for reform envisaged by my right hon. Friends are public service values to be maintained?

By public service values, I mean that public service is the determining criterion and that high-quality services are provided to the public when they are needed. In that context, profitability may have some part to play in the dynamics of provision, but it is emphatically a means, not an end. That is the key distinction between the provision of public services and the generality of activities in the private sector.

Further, the commitment to public service values entails a commitment to decent terms and conditions for those individual human beings who play their part in the delivery of public services. I am glad that that point was made in the manifesto on which the Labour party fought the general election and has been reiterated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in the debate on the Queen's Speech.

We as parliamentarians must think carefully about the system of accountability if there is to be greater participation of the private sector. Some aspects of the future arrangements for accountability are already coming into focus: for example, the commitment that, in a relatively short time scale, 75 per cent. of health service funding should be mediated through general practitioners, who, as servants of the public in the front line, can reasonably be expected to have a strong commitment to ensuring that that money is well used.

Those who work in the health service should be accountable. They must be incentivised better than they are now to ensure that their activities truly are animated by the ethos of public service. However, partnerships must be developed. An example is the consultations in recent weeks between the Government and the trade unions. I hope that there will be many occasions at which, perhaps, Welsh lamb will be served at No. 10. Clearly, part of the apparatus of accountability will rest with regulators, independent inspectors and varieties of ombudsmen. The Prime Minister has insisted that high minimum standards will characterise the reforms that the Government are determined to bring in.

A particular, nitty-gritty, arduous and unglamorous task that Members of Parliament and of the Assembly must carry out is to examine the precise terms of the contracts by which the private sector is engaged and exactly what the performance indicators require. That tough, technical work falls entirely within the tradition of Parliament's constitutional responsibility to grant or withhold supply, to scrutinise the way in which public funds are used and to hold the Government to account for such usage.

The Queen's Speech forecast that

    ``Legislation will be brought forward to help the police fight crime''.

Real progress has been made in the battle against serious crime. Crime has fallen by 16 per cent. in Wales since 1997, and I have nothing but respect for the part that Gwent constabulary, for example, has played in that. However, we must pay far greater attention and give far greater priority to low-level crime and antisocial behaviour, which afflicts far too many of our estates.

I will not name the estates in my constituency that are harassed and that suffer from such behaviour patterns because I do not wish to stigmatise them, but there is a real hopelessness in parts of my constituency. It derives from profound causes, such as de-industrialisation, unemployment, poverty, inadequate public services and the fact that my local authority, like others, does not have the power and the resources to do all that it wishes to do in support of our communities. We must take with the utmost seriousness the distress that is registered in our constituency surgeries by too many of our constituents, whose lives are made a recurrent misery by antisocial behaviour.

In the previous Parliament, the Government brought in a panoply of measures to enable authorities to deal with such behaviour. I am dismayed that as yet not a single antisocial behaviour order has been issued in Newport. I am pleased that our new local authority chief executive and our new superintendent of police in Newport share my dismay and are determined that that should be a priority and that they should use all the available means. I am impressed by the audit that they are undertaking of the nature of the problem and of the variety of resources, including those of the voluntary sector and educational system, that are to hand in helping us to deal with the issues more effectively.

I am pleased that, since his appointment, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has declared the topic a major concern. Decent people deserve better than to live under conditions of siege and in conditions of squalor. He spoke of

    ``Government and people working together to create a civilised society''.—[Official Report, 27 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 654.]

That seems to be the spirit that animates the Queen's Speech and that will animate the Labour Government's whole approach in its second term.

4.9 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I congratulate you, Mr. Griffiths, on your appointment as Chairman of the Committee. It is nice to see a Brecon boy in such a position and long may it continue.

The Queen's Speech is high on choice and diversity, which I welcome. In achieving those aims, as well as higher standards, the cost will be great and many resources will have to be put in. My first job on being selected as a candidate was to go on television and tell people that the Liberal Democrats were against cutting fuel tax and for increasing income tax. I realised then that I would have to send tough messages; it was a good baptism. However, when we knocked on doors during the election campaign, our distinctive position on income tax was not completely dismissed by many people. Indeed, many had a high regard for the honesty with which we proposed our policies. There will be a cost to high standards in public service, which must be borne mostly by the taxpayer. It could be argued that the 2 per cent. increase in our total vote and the five seats gained overall did not completely vindicate our approach, but it demonstrated how many people thought during the campaign.

My experience in the constituency and during the campaign was that choice in public services is not increasing in the rural localities. Far from it, choice is decreasing for many of my constituents. Before we speak about increasing diversity and choice, we should make a fundamental effort to stop their reduction. I shall take a few examples from my constituency. The two primary schools in Trecastle and Libanus are under threat. Both communities have had their fair share of a bashing during recent times. Trecastle's confidence has taken a terrific hammering because of the misguided decision to undertake in the area a mass burial and burning of cattle infected with foot and mouth. Indeed, the local authority has already identified it as a place where there must be a huge regeneration effort. Closing the school is unthinkable and would send entirely the wrong message to the people who make that community their home and to those who want to visit and enjoy the locality. Unfortunately, Libanus has seen recent outbreaks of foot and mouth.

To lose those schools would take the very heart out of the community. It would also reduce choice. People who send their children to those schools are not necessarily country people as we would normally understand. They are from towns, and rightly believe that their children benefit educationally and socially from the ambiance of a small country school. Close those schools and that choice is lost.

How are we to promote diversity in rural secondary schools? Many of my constituents' children already travel 15 miles to reach their secondary school. Shall we tell them that a secondary school a little farther on can meet their needs and desires, so that they spend most of the morning and evening travelling to school? In winter, those children, some of whom are only 11, often leave and reach home in the dark. We should have been ensuring greater quality, diversity and choice in schools, so let us make a bigger effort to do so, particularly in rural areas, rather than designate schools as having particular specialties.

We have a real problem in the area with identifying a site for Welsh-medium education at secondary level. Wherever it is sited, it will be inconvenient for one community or another. At present, we have decided to go along the route of providing Welsh language units in secondary schools. I know that that is unacceptable to a number of families, but let us work hard to make it work as well as we can.

The Queen's Speech states that the Government will

    ``give patients greater influence on the running of the NHS''.

However, that is not happening in Brecon, where there has been a determined effort to close the GP-led maternity unit, which has been an excellent service. The GPs who already work in the area and have skills and expertise in anaesthesia, surgery and obstetrics are willing and anxious to continue providing that service. That is what the patients, mothers and mothers-to-be want too, but there seems to be a plot—I would not say conspiracy—to ensure that that GP-led service is not reopened. The net effect is that mothers-to-be who, it is judged, may have a medium-risk delivery now have to go to Abergavenny, although many would prefer to stay in Brecon. Their choice has been reduced at a time when the Government say that they will increase choice.

We are very happy that our community hospitals are open and we intend to ensure that they remain so, but because of the great debts that hang over the area health authorities, almost by stealth some beds and services are being lost. The trust notified us of severe job losses at Brecon hospital and although it has agreed to reconsider that, we are still concerned.

In addition, people have been going to surgeries and saying that non-medical respite care at Brecon hospital has been stopped, but there has been no announcement. When people turn up for such care, they are simply turned away and told that either social services or facilities five or 10 miles away will provide it. For many people, that is no choice.

We talked to the people of Knighton, who had not had NHS dental care for more than a year because their dentist was ill and no other NHS dentist was prepared to work there. Many people, including single mothers, could not afford to pay for private care, but could not get public transport to take them to a NHS dentist who was prepared to treat them. There is not much choice for those people.


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Prepared 3 July 2001