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Mr. Steen: Given the success of complementary medicine and the 24 practitioners in the Totnes natural health centre, and given that there are virtually no NHS dentists in the whole of south Devon, can the Prime Minister see a way of using some of the unspent funds committed to NHS dental practices in south Devon to purchase homopathic[Interruption.]
Mr. Steen: I just had a slight slip of the tongue there. Can some of the unspent funds be used to purchase homeopathic medicines that relieve toothache, instead of awaiting the promised arrival of busloads of Polish dentists in the south-west?
The Prime Minister:
The more that the hon. Gentleman describes the full range of activities available in Totnes, the more that I think I will have to change my answer of having no current plans to visit there. I am sorry that he does not want the extra dentists that, as my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary announced, are coming to Devon. We have to recruit more dentists in the health servicethat is part of trying to expand the service, as we know. There are some 2,500 more dentists than there were in 1997, but there are still not enough, so we have got to recruit more, and they will all be highly qualified people.
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I should also tell the hon. Gentleman that the South Hams and West Devon primary care trust has received an increase in its funding, in cash terms, of 9 per cent. It is for PCTs to use this funding locally to commission services, and there is no reason why, if his PCT
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considered it the most appropriate use of the money, that could not include complementary medicinealthough perhaps not exactly as he described. [Laughter.] Or perhaps it could. I hope that that helps him when he gets back to his PCT.
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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence told us that any deployment of the Black Watch would be announced in the usual way, but there is no usual way to make such announcements and this is a very unusual deployment. It could be announced by written answer, orally or in a debate. There is a debate on defence tomorrow. Can you confirm that it would be in order for the Government to table a business motion to turn it into a substantive vote to test whether the Government's policy retains a majority? Is it not right, if we are to send 600 Scottish soldiers potentially into a valley of death, that we should find out whether the Government command a majority and that Members of Parliament should have the opportunity to stand up and be counted?
Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman asks whether it is possible, but he will know that the Government are entitled to change the business up to the rise of the House today. Of course, that is not a matter for me.
Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to debate an important matter that requires specific and urgent consideration, namely,
the closure of the Microtherm factory in Wirral, West.
My constituents in Upton want to express their thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity. The matter in question is the proposed closure of a factory in my constituencyMicrotherm, one of three high-quality manufacturing factories based there. In the firm's own words, it is the world's leading high-temperature insulation material manufacturer. Insulation does not get any better. My constituents are shocked and horrified by the decision taken in Belgium to look into closing the factory with the loss of 96 full-time and well-paid, high-technology manufacturing jobs.
In trying to persuade the House to adjourn today's business to debate this urgent and specific matter, I want to establish a number of facts to help us to take a reasoned decision. The company has been manufacturing in my constituency for 30 years. It has established itself as a world leader in its niche market. The factory is, I am told, highly profitable, and it is against that background that my constituents are wondering why it has been named as a closure target.
The fact is that the company withstood the Tory years, the economic mismanagement of the early 80sthen, later, of the early 90sgoing from strength to strength. It has a sister factory in Belgium where it is proposed to transfer these high-quality jobs. The work force are highly trained, highly skilled, highly thought of and highly productive. Many have been with the company since its opening in the early 1970s, when it was opened by the inventor of the process that provides the basis for Microtherm's thermal insulation.
Mr. Speaker: As the House knows, under Standing Order No. 24 I have to announce my decision without giving my reasons to the House. I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. As he knows, I must decide whether his application comes under Standing Order No. 24, and if so, whether a debate on this matter should be given priority over the business already arranged for this evening or tomorrow. In this case, the matter raised does not meet the requirements of the Standing Order. I therefore regret that I am not able to submit the hon. Gentleman's application to the House.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law so as to require traffic authorities to cause traffic signs to be placed near roads for the purpose of indicating the location of historic county boundaries; to require the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mark the boundaries of the historic counties on its maps; and for connected purposes.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for his help following the presentation of a similar Bill last year that made a strong case for Middlesex to be recognised as an historic county. I also pay tribute to the Association of British Counties for trailblazing the campaign for our historic counties to be given, once again, the full recognition that they rightly deserve.
As an Englishman who is proud to have grown up in the county of Somerset, I strongly believe that recognising and celebrating our past is important. Too much of our past has been jettisoned by those seeking to ignore the lessons from history, but we do that at our peril. It is vital that we are able to look back and celebrate the past, so that we can fathom where we are and make better progress through the uncharted waters ahead of us.
The 39 historic counties of England are a vital part of our heritage and need to be nurtured rather than discouraged. Many people have a strong sense of identity with their own county. The 39 historic counties are older than our medieval churches and cathedrals and complement the beauty of our countryside. The counties form the bedrock of England's local history, with a wealth of historical documents based on the county system. Those documents include parish records and parish registers of baptisms, marriages and deaths, quarter sessions records, and manorial and taxation records.
The importance of the counties is much greater than just local government. Their names and areas are widely used in tourism, sport, business, record keeping, local and family history, and in literature and the arts. They are sources of identity and affection for many people. They are the basis for an unchanging, recognisable and stable geography. It is where many of us live, "come from" and "belong". We may no longer have a Somerset Light Infantry Regiment, as it was subsumed, many re-organisations ago, into the Light Infantry, but the association of former members continues to represent those who served their country by serving in their county regiment.
For us in Somerset, and no doubt for people elsewhere, especially in Middlesex, there is still a constant reminder of the historic county bordersthe county cricket club. It has done a sterling job in helping to keep alive the memory of the real county boundary. Somerset may have been broken up when the county of Avon came into being in 1974, but changing the boundaries of the administrative organisation has not deterred the county cricket club. It has continued to play its festival week in June at the Rec in Bath, and until recent years still played at Weston-super-Marestill in the historic county of Somerset.
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When modern local government was created in 1888, the areas of its "administrative counties" were based closely on the historic counties. In that way, the traditional county-based geography of England was tied in with local government, and a sense of the continuity of areas and identities was maintained.
However, the story goes back much further than that. This very House came into being in 1265, when Sir Simon de Montfort called two knights "from each shire" to come to London to be part of the body to represent the interests of the commons. While each county may have originally been set up for some public purpose or other, long before the beginning of the 19th century it was their geographical identity that was paramount. No single administrative function actually defined them. Rather, the counties were territorial divisions of England with names and areas that had been fixed for many centuries. The counties were clearly recognised legal entities. Numerous Acts of Parliament used them as the framework for various administrative functions, such as lords lieutenant, high sheriffs and even parliamentary seats.
The cumulative effect of the local government reforms of 1965, 1974, 1986 andas far as Somerset was concernedthe failed opportunity of the mid-1990s to right the wrong of Avon has meant that the local government system is now very much changed from what it began as in 1888. Unintentionally or otherwise, the traditional county-based geography of England is in the process of being destroyed. The Bill would protect the historic counties and maintain their identity.
A modern local government map bears little resemblance to the historic counties. Successive Governments have always maintained that local government changes do not affect the counties themselves. Many of us are not convinced by such reassurances: the tendency for the media and of course the map-makers to use local government areas as a basis for geography is obscuring the identities of the counties that so many of us cherish. The first aim of the Bill is to place a duty on the Ordnance Survey to mark the 39 historic counties on the larger scale OS maps.
The second aim of the Bill is to have signs celebrating the boundary of the counties wherever they are crossed by major roads. A set of such signs of a uniform type would help to make clear the distinction between the counties and local government areas. The Association of British Counties suggests that the white-on-brown tourist signs would be suitable. Each one would have the words "Historic County of" followed by the county namesay, Somersetabove the local government area. The use of tourist signs is especially appropriate, since many of the counties, especially Somerset, are major tourist destinations in themselves.
I shall give the House one example of where such a sign would be based. If you, Mr. Speaker, were to travel down the M5, past Bristol and over the Avonmouth bridge you would, according to the sign currently placed there, be in the area administered by the unitary authority of North Somerset. Some 10 miles down the motorway, there is a further sign, which welcomes you to the county of Somerset, but that is the part of Somerset looked after by the county council. In welcoming those who pass the sign the county is being
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very gracious, but hardly accurate. Somerset, as with every historic county, belongs to us all and not to the councillors and officers of the local authority.
The Bill would force local authorities to mark out the boundary of historic Somerset and other counties so that the millions of drivers who go past those signs every year would be aware of part of my country's history. At the very least, it would remind those drivers that they were in a part of England that is forever Somerset. I commend the Bill to the House.
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