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Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I would like to add a little depth to this point. I am concerned about how dismissive Ministers and Labour Members have been about the concerns of the Fire Brigades Union. I recently received a delegation from the Hampshire FBU and heard its concerns about regional control rooms in our area and particularly about the effects that they would have on my constituency. It would affect rural areas and lead to the loss of staff between now and when the regional control rooms are introduced. Does my hon. Friend agree that such concerns should not be so readily dismissed?

Mr. Boswell: That is precisely the point. Many of us listen to FBU members and talk to watches in fire stations, and we can always learn from that process. I am sure that Ministers will want to pick up the concerns that are being vigorously expressed to my hon. Friend and me. All I am really saying to Ministers is, "Don't push your luck; don't take it too far; and don't rush it. Consult and think about it."

I wish to expand briefly on that point in relation to the particular services. To pick up my hon. Friend's point, there is still a major problem with the fire services. Major, wrenching and difficult changes are already taking place for fire service provision, and they will be politically difficult as well as difficult for the personnel involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who is not in the Chamber, eloquently explained the problems of Rushden fire station during a
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Westminster Hall debate yesterday. We have comparable problems in Daventry, because there is a move towards more part-time staffing to cover the station's work, which is causing considerable worry. If one superimposes the modernisation of control systems and the possible ultimate merger into a much wider regional structure on top of that, it is a matter of concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) clearly expressed some of the concerns in Northamptonshire about the police. Some of those concerns are practical, and I thought that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich made something of a point about the matter. Even within the shire structure we do not always have perfection.

It might amuse the House to hear that I was recently in one of my local police stations when a lorry driver who wanted to make a delivery came in. He said, "Where's Great Central Way?" I was a bit distracted because I was waiting for an appointment to discuss local policing matters, but when I became conscious that the chap at the desk was having difficulty, I said, "Why don't you try Woodford Halse? That's about 10 miles away." Of course that was exactly where the delivery was for—no one had spotted that the destination was not in the town itself.

I can translate my point to a consideration of ambulances. There was a difficult case recently involving a person who was injured in a ploughing match that was taking place in a field on the Warwickshire-Northamptonshire county boundary. Of course the judge who went to the assistance of the person who had fallen did not know the postcode of the location, although he did have a mobile phone—that is relevant to our consideration. He telephoned for assistance, but the terrestrial ambulances of both counties failed to get there and the air ambulance had to be brought in. However, the air ambulance is already served co-operatively by the counties of Warwickshire and Northamptonshire.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am following my hon. Friend's remarks with great interest. Is he aware that there is strong resistance to the proposed merger of the ambulance service in Staffordshire, which came up during Prime Minister's questions? The real question is whether that will be effectively opposed by Staffordshire Labour Members, although I and others certainly oppose it, as we have shown in the early-day motion that we tabled yesterday.

Mr. Boswell: It will be interesting to find out. I shall watch the situation, especially now that we have more varied representation in Northamptonshire. I shall refer to ambulance services in a moment.

To conclude my remarks on the police authority, I do not want it to be suggested that I am not interested in democratic control. We have a police authority and there has recently been a change of administration in the county council at county hall. The question of who would control and assume the chair of the police authority was a real political issue, but at least it was determined locally—as it should be—rather than regionally.
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I made an intervention during the Minister's speech about the police. Their relationship with fire control rooms and, above all, the interoperability of services—I have some constituency involvement with Airwave—should be carefully watched. We need to ensure that the system works and Ministers should not over-claim what they are doing.

My main worries relate to the health agenda, on which I shall speak a little more widely. We must examine the more general consideration of the reorganisation of the national health service. I know that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), will wind up the debate. A strong functional primary care trust covers most of my area and I have been engaged for some time in fairly delicate negotiations to insert the other part of my area, which is brigaded with Oxfordshire—across the county boundary—into that trust, so it is extraordinary that after we appeared to be getting somewhere and consultation was offered, the whole thing is now up in the air. We might well end up with a county-wide trust, although we do not know that yet. We have had no news from the Department of Health, so we have had to work things out for ourselves, although I have written to the Secretary of State for Health on the matter.

These things are not cost-free. My wife and I are involved with the re-provision of Brackley cottage hospital. My wife is a trustee and I am on one of the working groups. The matter might be worth an Adjournment debate one day, because it has gone on for 15 years. Every time that we seem to be getting somewhere, the NHS reorganises itself and the whole thing has to be started from scratch.

The situation is especially vicious in relation to provision for our ambulance services. I know about the quality of Staffordshire's service and the Minister will be aware of the high quality of the Two Shires ambulance trust—my domestic NHS ambulance trust—covering Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. It is a three-star trust of long standing that is run extremely well. It is almost the one service in my constituency for which we are not on the edge of things, as it is headquartered in the village of Deanshanger. Although that is more or less in the centre of the trust's area and at the edge of my constituency, at least it is in my constituency, instead of a substantial distance away.

The trust has worked especially well and should not be reorganised only for the reason that Ministers have decided that everything must be regionalised, with one bit going to south-east Buckinghamshire and another bit going to the east midlands. The trust would have to be dissolved before it could be reconstituted, so the operation would be doubly wrenching.

It would be likely that the service for my area would be reconstituted into a trust with fewer stars, or a less good record, so there is extreme concern about the process, which is compounded by worries about the speed of implementation. I attended the trust's annual meeting at which its senior management and chairman were under the impression that it might be asked to merge from next April, or that a shadow committee would be established with the aim of an implementation date not far into the future. That raises practical concerns about the compatibility of radios and equipment carried on vehicles, and, of course, control
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functions. Above all, we cannot have a situation in which people in my constituency or those of other hon. Members do not get the service that they deserve simply because the component bits of the service do not talk to each other, which is the fundamental worry set out in the motion.

My underlying concern is that decision making is being shifted from someone who is usually democratically accountable—or at any rate physically accessible in my county town—to a more distant, less accountable and less familiar regional body. It might be useful if I share with the House something of my personal situation, which is matched by that of many of my constituents.

I have lived in a village called Aynho for nearly 40 years. It is in the extreme south-west of both my constituency and Northamptonshire, so we are virtually the end point of the east midlands. For example, we are at the end point of the electricity grid network in the east midlands. It is a long way from the village to Cleethorpes. It is actually quite a long way from the village to Nottingham. My village is 60 miles from the House, but 100 miles from Nottingham. I am not sure that I would wish to substitute control from Northampton—or even London—with control from Nottingham. In fairness to the Minister, some of the journey from my village to Nottingham runs through my constituency. When one reaches the northern boundary of my constituency, one is halfway there, but Nottingham is still a long way away.

Let me explain how things work operationally. There are four postal regions in my constituency: first, Northampton, which is in the east midlands; secondly, Coventry, which is in the west midlands; thirdly, Milton Keynes—we have had real problems with BT employees not being able to recognise the post codes of people from there who ring in, because they go through to the wrong control room; and, fourthly, Oxfordshire. I live 300 yd within my constituency and have an Oxfordshire postcode, as have about 20 per cent. of my constituents. Oxfordshire is in the south-east, as is Milton Keynes. There are huge operational difficulties, including those that relate to the focus of operations. I touched on some of those. My area is not Greater London, a unitary or the west midlands. The pattern is complex and dispersed. People already live at great and extended distances from services.

There is something else to consider. We formed part of the Deputy Prime Minister's expansion plans and growth areas under the Milton Keynes and south midlands study, but that involves three regions—the south-east, the east midlands and eastern. Whatever Ministers come up with has to be sensitive to such considerations.

My other access route is to go from Milton Keynes to Crick in my constituency, which is a 25-minute drive down the old Roman road of Watling street. I move effortlessly from the south-east area of influence to the west midlands. Again, no regional template is sensitive to that. We have held the line of having an element of county control and involvement, although even that is sometimes distant. However, the situation is uneasy. My fear is that the drive for regionalisation or centralisation will make it worse.
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The irony is that I have the great privilege and delight to live in the middle of England in a very pleasant area, yet my constituents and I face the paradox of also living on the edge of every service. They are uneasy about that and, frankly, increasingly alarmed, concerned and fed up.

2.31 pm

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