|Sir George speaks out on health, schools and social services
21 Jun 2001
In the debate on the Queens Speech, Sir George spoke about the challenges facing local schools on recruitment; the health service and social services.
Extract from Hansard follows.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). The House was pleased to hear of the improvement in the quality of life of his constituents. At the beginning of his speech, he expressed his philosophy on why his party won the election. I think that the reason was quite simple. I believe that some time ago the country decided to give the Labour party a second term, and there was little that either side could have done about it once that decision was taken.
I shall make a brief contribution, because I am conscious that many other hon. Members wish to speak. I shall say a word about health, a word about education, and then I shall pick up on the comments made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) about Parliament.
If health and education are to be two of the themes for this Session, it is odd that the Bill banning tobacco advertising is out and the Bill banning hunting is in. The hunting Bill is hardly central to the delivery of better public services, and it is totally irrelevant to the needs of rural areas, which are trying to recover from the worst crisis in 50 years. Some of my colleagues may have had reservations about the tobacco advertising and promotion Bill, but I agree with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, who said on the "Today" programme this morning that it was the single most effective public health measure. Advertising validates and reinforces an activity that kills more than 100,000 people a year, and I hope that it will not be too long before time is found for that Bill.
Turning to other health issues with a political flavour, what happened in Wyre Forest is a lesson to all of us--the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) may catch your eye later on, Mr. Speaker. It showed the high price paid if an MP fails to get on top of a sensitive local issue and ceases to be the buckle between Parliament and people. It also shows the anti-politician mood that is out there, which has led to an appetite for voting for the non-politician who is campaigning on a single issue. I predict that there will be a lot more of that next time round, and we all need to be on our toes.
On the Government's wish to confront vested interests in health and education, they seem to have got off to a bad start. They have driven to the verge of industrial action the least militant group of public servants in the country: the general practitioners. I hope that Health Ministers will urgently build bridges with GPs, who run the most cost-effective and most popular part of the NHS.
There are a number of reasons why GPs' patience is running out: the increase in paperwork; the ever-expanding work load; shorter consultation times; endless reform; and more litigation. It is a sobering thought that the cost of outstanding legal claims against the NHS is a third of its annual budget. There is a more general point to be made on a separate occasion about our becoming a more litigious society and the injury that does to our fellow citizens, who, in effect, have to pay for it.
Failure to get on top of the waiting list problem has also created difficulties for GPs, who have to manage patients who are not getting the service that they expect.
Yesterday, I received a letter from a constituent who underwent breast cancer surgery in February. In fairness to the NHS, she said:
"I cannot speak too highly about the care I have been given thus far."
In May, she was told by her oncologist that she would need radiotherapy, and that it would probably start in July. More recently, because of the waiting list, the approaching holiday period and the shortage of staff to work the machinery, she was told that she will still be waiting to hear about her appointment in August. That shows the challenge on delivery that the Government face.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Which of the professions to which the right hon. Gentleman has just referred have a training period that is shorter than the length of the last Administration?
Sir George Young: My point was made in a spirit of amiable consensus. The Government must confront this challenge because they have raised expectations. My constituent's expectations were raised, and she is disappointed that, having had the surgery, she is having to wait an indefinite period for the radiotherapy.
That leads me to the issue of resources, which I have previously raised with Ministers. They regard Hampshire as a county so healthy that we get just over £80 per capita for every £100 that the rest of the country receives. The Government's own independent assessors say that they can find no justification for that figure, and until we get realistic resources to deliver the services that people expect, the Government will struggle to convince my constituents that the NHS is improving. In Andover, we have a popular local hospital. Substantial investment is needed to bring it up to date, and to cope with the requirements of an expanding town; yet a document published recently by the health authority suggested the making of economies, rather than investment in the building. That is another good example of the challenge that confronts the Government in regard to delivery.
The issue of resources leads me to my next point, which concerns social services. It does not make sense to pump money into the national health service and then starve social services; that leads to blocked beds and to extra admissions to hospital, because care in the community breaks down. The Government recognised that last year, when they found some welcome emergency funds in the winter to deal with bed-blocking, but such moves are not a lasting solution in Hampshire. We are spending over standard spending assessment on social services, but the county cannot pay enough to nursing and residential care homes, so they are closing. That simply is not joined-up government.
On health, the question arises of partnership with the private sector. If the Government want to pick a fight with the public sector trade unions, so be it, but an easier way of re-engaging the private sector would be to revisit the role of independent health insurance. The withdrawal of tax relief caused some people to cancel health insurance policies when they retired. That placed an additional burden on the NHS, and reduced the total spent on health.
I think that the Government should explore with employers and unions the idea of expanding private health insurance--providing it not just for directors and senior staff, but for the entire work force of companies and, indeed, their families. That would help to change the perception of the private sector, and I think the Government would find that the unions were on their side rather than against them.
Let me say a word about schools, prompted by discussion at the school gate during the election campaign. There is a real problem with recruitment. One school in my constituency is currently recruiting maths teachers from Bulgaria, and awaiting the issue of work permits. A head teacher in another school has solved the problem by advertising for new teachers before any of his existing teachers have handed in their notice, on the basis that some will leave and he wants first pick--preferring the risk of having too many teachers to that of having too few.
We need a much better regime for disruptive pupils, who seem to be getting younger and younger. Simply excluding them is not the answer. I suspect that I am not alone in finding that more and more of my constituency case load is devoted to finding an appropriate regime for excluded children.
Let me respond to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush by saying a word about Parliament. Low voter turnout and the marginalisation of Parliament are two sides of the same coin. Last week I heard the word "humility"--from, I think, the Prime Minister. Nowhere is humility needed more than in the Government's dealings with Parliament, but I have to say that very little was visible in the last Parliament.
We have seen the Liaison Committee's report "Shifting the Balance", and the Norton commission's report on strengthening Parliament. This week, the Hansard Society published a report on the same theme. I want to make three brief suggestions. The first relates to Prime Minister's Question Time, which I think should be restructured to allow a sustained line of questioning on a particular theme. Of 179 Members, 128 believe that it is not currently an effective means of securing information or explanation from the Government--and I believe that the present cabaret is partly responsible for the fact that people feel remote and disengaged from Parliament.
Secondly, I think it wrong for the Leader of the House to chair the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons. The Leader of the House is the Government's business manager: it is his or her job to get the legislative programme through the House. The Select Committee is a Committee of the House of Commons, making recommendations on how the House can hold the Government to account. There could not be a clearer conflict of interests than that caused by making the Leader of the House head of that Committee. The illogicality is demonstrated by the fact that the one Select Committee that never receives a response from the Government is the Modernisation Committee: that shows how close the relationship is.
The job of the House of Commons is to put a sleeping policeman in front of the legislative juggernaut. If I may pursue the analogy, our job is to get the driver out of the cab, and to ask him where he is going and what he has on board. The risk is that owing to pressure of time we will simply wave him through, sometimes without even slowing him down--hoping that he will be caught speeding in the other place.
Finally, I hope that we can dispense with the automatic timetabling of every single Bill. That approach is inflexible: the timetable is fixed before we even know how many Government amendments there will be. I hope that the Leader of the House will agree to informal, flexible arrangements, which I believe could work far better.
The new Leader of the House was described by the Chancellor, on Monday's "Today" programme, as a reforming one. Having listened to him at business questions, I have my doubts. In any event, in the longer term, whether he is or is not a reforming Leader of the House may be more important than any of the Bills mentioned in the Queen's Speech.