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Mrs. Laing: I cannot sit here and listen to the hon. Gentleman saying something about the last Government that is not true. Exactly the reverse is true. No Conservative Government ever encouraged any sector of society to be benefit-dependent.
Miss Widdecombe: If the hon. Gentleman's Government are so keen on reducing benefit dependency, why was it that when we introduced the jobseeker's allowance, which required people to look for work, it was opposed by the then Opposition? Why was it that when we made amendments to incapacity benefitprecisely because it was so abused and used for dependencywere they opposed by the then Opposition? Why did they oppose all those measures when in opposition if they are genuinely opposed to benefit dependency?
Mr. Lepper: That was a long intervention from the right hon. Lady. I stand by my statement. We have attempted to shift away from benefit dependency, not just through the new deal. My constituency and the rest of the Brighton and Hove city council area has benefited from being an employment zone. We also have the working links organisation, which has taken a more flexible approach to training and getting people into jobs.
Assisted area status has been given to parts of the Kemptown constituency and my own, as well as parts of the wider Newhaven to Shoreham area. That is also helping to bring jobs to my part of the south coast. I well recall the days before I was a Member of Parliament when, as a Brighton councillor, I came up to London with a delegation from the Brighton borough council, as it then was, and from East Sussex county council, with which we were then linked, to make a plea to the then DTI Ministerwho was at the time the Conservative Member for Hovefor Government support for assisted area status.
We could see the effect that the two recessionswe will not quibble about whether it was two or threewere having on our area. We had seen the way in which they had decimated a once-thriving manufacturing base on the outskirts of Brighton and Hove and the way in which we lost about 6,000 jobs throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.
We made a plea for Conservative Government support for assisted area status and despite the fact that his own constituency would have benefited, the then Minister did not feel able to persuade the Conservative Government to back our bid for that status. It has taken a Labour Government to support that bid and we are now beginning to see some of the fruits of it.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who is no longer with us, talked about the need for strategies and for analysis leading to strategies. In terms of the south-east, I draw his attention and that of other hon. Members to the document "A Better Quality of Life in the South-east", produced by the south-east regional assembly, the Government office for the south-east, the South East England development agency, the Environment Agency and the national health service.
The document was published in June last year and carries out exactly the kind of analysis for which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton was pleading, and develops a strategy for improving the quality of life. The authors of the documentnot the Labour Governmentsay that the single most significant tool in terms of addressing the objective of tackling deprivation and its associated targets is the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal. That is a strategy of this Government, and I am pleased that part of my constituency, the Hollingdean area, will benefit from being part of the strategy, which concentrates on the poorest constituents and brings in funding from the mainstream budgets of public agencies. Perhaps most importantly, it involves the local community in planning the way in which that funding will be used.
Underlying some of the comments of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The WealdI may be misinterpreting herwas a view that somehow communities were waiting for things to be done to them by outside agencies. I agree that the quality and level of policing is important, but what has been overlooked for too many yearsanother hallmark of this Government is that we are shifting the emphasisis the involvement of local people at community level in deciding how additional funding should be used.
Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I will not trespass on his patience again after this. Does he accept that what he has just said was the exact basis of our single regeneration budget, an extremely successful initiative that the Government have carried on? Does he accept that neighbourhood involvement was the very essence of that?
Mr. Lepper: The single regeneration budget was a late addition to Conservative policies, but I agree that my constituency has benefited in part from it. However, it did not look at the neighbourhood areas in the way that neighbourhood renewal does.
I welcome the fact that we will benefit in parts of my constituency from being part of neighbourhood renewal. That same area of Hollingdean now has sure start funding, which will vastly improve the quality of life of the many families with young children under school age who are living in council estates or areas of private housing that currently have little in the way of community facilities that are sometimes taken for granted elsewhere. These are the kinds of streams of funding that are making a real difference to the lives of people in my community.
I could mention also the increasing health authority allocations over the last five years, and the additional £800,000 given to our local hospital to modernise the maternity unit, much as happened in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. I could mention also the opening of an NHS dental centre, providing dental treatment for many of those people who, because
Mr. Burns: I will paraphrase the question that I put to the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell). Was the hon. Gentleman at the Labour party conference in October 1999? Did he hear the Prime Minister say that, within two years, everybody in the country would have access to an NHS dentist? Is he aware that, according to Government figures from the Department of Health, the number of people who have access to an NHS dentist amounts to just under 60 per cent? It is over two years since that promise. Could the hon. Gentleman explain why it has not been kept?
Mr. Lepper: The NHS dental centre in my constituency, opened in the autumn of last year, is one of a number of such centres opened across the country since the Prime Minister made that speech at the Labour party conference to which the hon. Gentleman has twice drawn the attention of the House.
While on the subject of health, I could mention the £675,000 of the local capital modernisation fund, provided to our local NHS trust for equipment and small building works. Perhaps most importantly, we have been given the go-ahead for a new children's unit on the site of the Royal Sussex county hospital to replace the 120-year-old Royal Alexandra children's hospital. That hospital was much loved by local families over the years, but as everyone recognisesparticularly the medical staff and nurses who work therethe 120-year-old building has long since outlived its capacity for refurbishment and modernisation. I am pleased to say that the Government have brought forward the intended date of completion of the newly transferred children's unit from 2010 to 2007.
Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman mentioned several Government-funded capital projects, but does he acknowledge that, although the Government may have made some progress, a fundamental problem exists in the south-east in terms of the revenue required to bring certain projects on stream? In the south-east, there is a real difficulty in getting year-by-year allocations to back up capital projects.
I shall finish my remarks on health by drawing attention to the new medical schoolone of three in the countrythat will open in Brighton this year. This joint projectinvolving the Government, the University of Sussex, the University of Brighton, and the Royal Sussex County hospitalwill create one of the schools that will help to train doctors. Our national health service is still in drastic need of more doctors, and more nurses, because during the 1990s recruitment and training programmes for doctors and nurses were repeatedly cut back. I am pleased that my constituency will have one of the new medical schools.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Wealdin mentioning her, I risk her intervening againrightly drew attention to the problems that can be generated by disaffected young people. As I said, I taught
This issue brings me back to the importance of involving local people in improving the quality of life. The scheme will provide funding for a local partnershipinvolving the local council, Brighton and Hove Albion football club, South East Dance, Brighton youth centre and Adventure Unlimitedthat will work with precisely those young people, aged 10 to 16, who are in danger of falling into the trap of disaffection that the right hon. Lady described.
I have sought to outline certain ways in which several Government policies are directly addressing improving the quality of life for many of my constituents. However, I want to make a plea to the Government that echoes the comments of some other Members. As I said, having a job is probably the most basic measure of one's quality of life, but having somewhere to live goes hand in hand with that. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will know from my correspondence and comments in the House that the problem of obtaining affordable housing is becoming increasingly acute, not just in my constituency but along the entire south coast. Indeed, I suspect that the same is true in London.
I welcome the fact that my area is part of the key workers scheme, which involves the Moat housing association, and that East Sussex, Brighton and Hove health authority now has an additional allowance for nurses and other health service staff. It was excluded from that scheme on its introductionuntil health service representatives, my hon. Friends and I undertook a great deal of lobbying. I also welcome the fact that my local council can now specify a proportion of affordable housing in new planning developments, and the many measures in the housing Green Paper and the urban White Papersuch as changes in VATthat should help to free up empty property. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and others have referred to such measures. My own council has an empty property strategy, through which it tries to bring back into use some of the manyfar too manyempty properties above shops and offices that could be used as flats.
Measures are in place to make housing more accessible to the people who need it, but I renew my plea to the Government to look again at the housing benefit system. In my constituency, the housing benefit that is available to under-25-year-olds in no way compares to even the lowest rents that are being asked for the smallest privately rented properties. I do not want housing benefit to cover the whole of a person's rent, because that would invite landlords to increase rents. However, existing structures, the way in which the local reference rent is set and certain housing benefit restrictions are not helping many of my constituents, particularly the young. As I said, I ask the Government to look again at that issue.
I finish with a slight warning. I hope that the remarks of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) are not widely reported outside the House. I say that not because of any personal animosityI do not know him well enough to have strong feelings about