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5.34 pm

Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester): I have listened with increasing incredulity to the statements made by Opposition Members, because the picture of our public services that they portray bears no relation whatsoever to the reality of what is happening in our local communities, where decades of long-term under-investment are being reversed.

During the 18 years of Conservative rule, to which many of my hon. Friends referred, I served as a local councillor, a magistrate, a school governor and a member of the community health council, and worked in the voluntary sector. Therefore I have a pretty good insight into what went on, which was the systematic dismantling, undermining and fragmentation of all our public services. Not only that, but central Government were providing a completely inadequate level of funding for local government and local councils.

I particularly want to focus on the NHS; significantly, very few Conservative Members mentioned it, although it features in their motion. In 1996, my local hospital, the Countess of Chester hospital, was failing and very near bankruptcy. Every winter there was a beds crisis with wards being closed, and waiting lists for fairly basic operations, such as hip and knee operations, ran to many years. After six years of a Labour Government, the Countess of Chester is a high-performing, three-star hospital. That has not happened by accident; it is a result of the policies of the Labour Government.

I want to run through some of the effects that our policies are having on patient care at the Countess of Chester hospital. Newly diagnosed cancer patients are

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seen within days. Heart patients are immediately referred to the cardio-thoracic centre in Liverpool, where waiting times for heart operations have halved. The waiting list for non-urgent operations is now under 12 months for everyone. Recently, a fantastic multi-million pound day-case surgery unit was opened; the first significant investment at that hospital for 25 years. But that is not all. The maternity unit and the accident and emergency unit have been upgraded, there is a new breast cancer care unit and a new eye centre, and, very shortly, there will be a wonderful new out-patients department. Next door, a new mental health unit is to open. That is important. I worked with people with mental health problems before I was elected. For decades, mental health services have been the Cinderella health service, but in Chester, as in many other parts of the country, in-patients will leave their Victorian asylums and move into purpose-built modern buildings.

The other issue that I want to mention is staffing. Labour Members have shown a lot of honesty today, because we have accepted that there are still real problems in the NHS. Capacity is one such problem. That is partly due to the legacy of under-investment and short-term planning by Conservative Governments, whose policies reduced the number of beds and cut the number of student nurses. I want to tell hon. Members that the situation is improving.

At the Countess of Chester hospital, matrons are back on the wards and staff numbers are increasing at the rate of 4 per cent. or 5 per cent. a year. Last year, the increase was 9 per cent. across the board, applying to nurses, doctors, scientists and all other essential NHS staff. Investment of £1 million in the education centre at the Countess will provide in-house training facilities, and a new school of nursing and midwifery is about to open next door at Chester college. I know that you will be interested in that, Madam Deputy Speaker, given your background.

All the welcome investment in education and training is accompanied by new equipment, buildings and IT systems that will put our national health service on a sustainable footing for the long term. There is no point in pretending that we can provide a first-class health service on the cheap. That cannot be done. One cannot improve patient care, treat more patients or cut waiting times without substantial investment. Our Government are doing that.

Let us briefly consider education. I remember the 1980s, when I was a school governor and my kids were at school. Fewer than one in three children had a nursery place. Nowadays, every three and four-year-old in the country has a free nursery place.

There is a sure start scheme in my constituency. Those schemes are making a huge contribution to fulfilling the Government's pledge to end child poverty in Britain by 2020. On a big estate in Chester, that wonderful initiative means that health workers and early-years educationalists are working together to improve the life chances of children from disadvantaged families.

Several hon. Members have pointed out that all five, six and seven-year-olds are now taught in classes of fewer than 30 pupils. When my son was at school, in the early 1980s, there were infant classes of more than 40. I

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remember the physical state of school buildings; the leaking roofs, the peeling paint and the decrepit portakabins. I have examined the statistics and, in 1997, approximately £650 million was spent throughout the country on upgrading, improving and repairing our school buildings. The figure this year will be £5 billion. That is the difference that a Labour Government make; a fivefold increase.

Let me compare and contrast my two local councils; the Conservative-controlled county council and the jointly administered Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled city council. This year, Cheshire county council was given one of the best shire county settlements; an unprecedented increase in grant of almost 8 per cent. However, it required a concerted campaign by teachers and parents to persuade that Conservative administration to passport all the additional resources to Cheshire schools. Of course, it has not passported the full amount. I believe that £1 million is being retained at County hall.

The motion refers to community cohesion. If the Conservative administration at County hall in Cheshire cared about community cohesion, it would not axe the grants to community action projects throughout the county. These include the Blacon project in my constituency, which has done a tremendous job of tackling social exclusion on that estate.

Listening has been mentioned often in the debate. Cheshire county council is not interested in listening to what the public think. It has abolished the public budget consultation meetings. Members have talked about their opposition to regional assemblies, which is fair enough, but I must ask them whether Cheshire county council is right to waste taxpayers' money by diverting front-line officers from their jobs to work on a campaign to thwart the right of the people to have a regional assembly for the north-west if they so wish.

In comparison, Chester city council has consulted the people and listened to them. The city council has said that its priority is a cleaner, safer, greener Chester, and that is exactly what it is getting. Home Office funding has delivered a citywide CCTV scheme to improve community safety.

Mr. Heald: In the consultation that the city council carried out, did anybody mention that they wanted a regional assembly?

Ms Russell: I have not analysed the consultation. I shall get back to the hon. Gentleman on that.

People said that they wanted improvements in community safety and that is exactly what is happening. There is CCTV coverage throughout the city centre and mobile cameras will improve safety on all the estates. Chester has a fine and improving record on recycling, and this year we shall see an increase in the green recycling scheme, under which garden waste is collected from people's doorsteps. The programme to upgrade recreation and children's play areas has also been stepped up. The cost of all those improvements will cost the council tax payers of Chester 10p a week on their council tax bill.

The Opposition motion before us today is a recipe for cuts in the NHS and in our vital public services, and I hope that when the vote is taken in an hour and a quarter, Members will support the Government's amendment.

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5.47 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): The hon. Member for City of Chester (Ms Russell) said a few moments ago that she had listened to the debate with great interest. I am sure that listening to debates is an experience that she is used to, because I believe that this is in fact her first speech in the Chamber since the 2001 election.

Ms Russell indicated dissent.

Mr. Goodman: She shakes her head, and I should be happy to give way if she wished to correct me on that point. I believe, however, that this is her first speech since the election and I presume that we can expect another one in 2005, which will presumably be after the next general election. I want to say to her and to other Labour Members in all seriousness that, if she had been ill during the course of this Parliament—as Members on both sides of the House have been—I could understand her silence. If she has not, she is providing her constituents with a very poor service. I hope that the voters of City of Chester—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to the motion and the amendment before the House.

Mr. Goodman: I should be very happy to do that, and to turn my attention to the speech that the Minister made earlier. He referred to the grant provided by Buckinghamshire county council. He said, quite correctly, that that grant increase was about 6 per cent. and, again quite correctly, that it was well above the rate of inflation. What he failed to point out, however, represents an important aspect of this debate. I shall quote David Shakespeare, the leader of Buckinghamshire county council, who said:

He goes on:

That is the full picture of what is happening to funding in Buckinghamshire county council.

There is a great weakness in the Government's case. Councils in the south-east are experiencing problems. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) ably made some of these points, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). It is clear that the problems in our communities to which the motion refers and the shifting of Government resources from the south-east to the north are intimately connected.

This morning, I was fortunate enough to secure a debate on school funding, at which not a single Labour Back Bencher was present. If the Government want to know the consequences of this shift of money from the

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south-east to the north, they should be fully aware of the facts that have been laid out by David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

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