Speaking on the last day of the session, Sir George raised a number of local issues including the cuts in the DLO in Andover; the future of Cricklade Theatre and the lack of NHS dentists. See below:
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I hope that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) will understand if I do not follow her on the local issues that she raised. However, I want to pick up a point that she made about star ratings and hospitals.
The House should address three issues before we rise for the summer recess, all of which have an impact on my constituency; they concern the Learning and Skills Council, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence, following the Secretary of State's announcement yesterday.
I start with the Department of Health. Yesterday, as the hon. Lady said, the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection published its NHS performance ratings for 2003–04, allocating three, two, one or no stars to all the trusts. I have no difficulty in principle with monitoring the performance of trusts, but is the methodology robust enough to withstand the weight that is now imputed to it?
One of the acute trusts in my constituency is Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare NHS Trust, which last year had a three-star rating but, yesterday, had dropped to one star—after the Department had encouraged it to apply for foundation status. My subjective judgment is that the hospital is probably better today than it was a year ago—not least because it has a new diagnostic treatment centre. However, during the reference period, while the hospital was being assessed, it underachieved on total times in A and E—like the hospital referred to by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden—and so it was knocked back. I hope the Minister will confirm that the star rating regime is itself under review, as I am not sure how many stars I would give it at the moment.
On a related point, I should not be doing justice to my constituents if I did not mention the continuing difficulty of trying to find an NHS dentist in North-West Hampshire. Yesterday my constituent, Mr C, a 76-year-old pensioner in Tadley, sent me a copy of a letter he had sent to the Secretary of State, which ended, fraternally:
"And I have voted Labour for years".
However, to judge by the rest of the letter, he may not be doing so again. Along with many other constituents who had access to an NHS dentist for all the years when we were told that the service was underfunded by the Conservatives, he has been told that his dentist is leaving the NHS. There are real unresolved problems about access to NHS dentists in Hampshire, and despite all the protestations, the position is worse than when the Government took office seven years ago.
My constituent, Mr. T, needs some complicated civil engineering work done on his gums, which involves negotiations with the NHS. I shall quote from the postscript of his letter to me:
"Got a call this morning, 19th, from the Royal Berks confirming that it is at least a four month wait for the initial chat with the consultant then at least a five month wait before the start of any treatment. What a state this bloody country is in!"
That was a less than fraternal ending to the letter, but a reminder to Ministers in the Department of Health that they should be cautious in their boasts about the achievements of the NHS in Hampshire, because real difficulties confront trusts: they are running at a deficit and are having to reconfigure services; and the funding formula does not really do justice to the pressures on the service.
Turning briefly to the Learning and Skills Council, Andover, with a population of about 40,000, is the main town in my constituency. It has no cinemas, but it has one theatre located in Cricklade college, which comes under the umbrella of the Learning and Skills Council. For the last 28 years, that 270-seat theatre has been the primary venue for all dramatic, operatic and artistic societies in the area—the Andover Music Club, the Andover Operatic Society and a host of other organisations hold their functions there. I have a soft spot for the place, because the final selection for the Conservative candidate in 1995 took place there, when I spent an anxious half an hour in a dressing room with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).
It is just as well that my party is not choosing another candidate, because a press release from Cricklade college asserts that the Learning and Skills Council will no longer allow Cricklade college theatre to be used as a community theatre. When the current refurbishment work is completed, it cannot reopen as a community theatre and can be used only by students. All the organisations that have booked events for later in the year are desperately trying to find other venues, none of which are as suitable as Cricklade theatre. That is patently absurd.
We need a breathing space to sort out the bureaucratic muddle. I am sure that the Government's policy is that schools and colleges should be outward looking and encourage the community to come in and that they should not be introverted, limited institutions. I hope that the Minister will draw my remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and invite him to open a dialogue with the Learning and Skills Council to see whether they can find a way to allow Cricklade college theatre to continue to be used for the purposes for which it has always been used—I know that Test Valley borough council would participate enthusiastically in such a dialogue.
Finally, I turn to the Ministry of Defence. The Minister will understand that hon. Members up and down the country are anxious on behalf of their constituents about the impact of yesterday's statement. Today is not the time to debate whether that statement got the balance right between this country's obligations and the resources available to meet them. I want to touch on one aspect of the statement only, again with a local focus.
The Defence Logistics Organisations is one of the largest parts of the MOD, and it employs some 28,000 staff and has a budget of £8 billion. It has successfully supported a range of military challenges over recent years, and many of its staff work in the DLO in Andover. Those staff are, of course, concerned about the proposals to cut nearly 3,000 DLO posts and to move some of the jobs from Andover to Abbey Wood in Bristol. We know from the White Paper that
"unfortunately some will need to be made redundant".
It might well be the right strategic decision to refocus resources towards the front line—I have been offered a meeting with the chief of defence logistics, which I shall attend—but the staff do not want uncertainty. Will the Minister pass on to the Secretary of State for Defence my heartfelt plea that the uncertainty should be ended as soon as possible and that those who must go should be given all help in finding a new career?
Finally, will the Minister confirm that we can return to the broader issues raised by the White Paper when we return in September, with a full-day debate in Government time?