Queen's Speech Debate - Health and Education

13th November 2007

Brooks Newmark condemns the Government as "long on rhetoric and short on progress" as demonstrated by the lack of progress on the promised Braintree Community Hospital.


9.7 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The Prime Minister's first hundred days can be summed up with a modified form of an old wedding proverb: something old, little new, plenty borrowed, lots of blue. Lumping health and education into one day's debate after two ministerial statements is also something of a marriage of convenience for a Government who have failed to deliver on 10 years of empty promises on health care and education. However, it is less convenient for my constituents, most of whom regard the delivery of good health care and good education as the two most important ways in which Government policy affects their lives. I suspect that my constituents would be happier if there were fewer Bills in the Gracious Speech and more emphasis on the delivery of the services that matter to them.

As ever, the Government are long on rhetoric and short on progress when it comes to the delivery of proper local health care. The Prime Minister now seems to have cast himself as Hercules cleaning out the NHS stables-or, more simply, as a cross between Flash Gordon and Mr. Muscle. But, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) exposed last week, his deep clean commitment has more than a whiff of spin about it.

A further deep clean is now desperately needed: a deep clean of the Government's target culture and centralised control of health care. The Gracious Speech contained a commitment on behalf of the Government to

"providing a healthcare system organised around the needs of the patient."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 6 November 2007; Vol. 696, c. 1.]

Yet the new health and social care Bill will introduce a new integrated regulator, more targets and more interference with front-line professionals-all, perversely, in the interests of boosting public confidence in a failing system.

The sickness in the health service is borne out by my constituents' experience of obtaining adequate local health care. Before the 2005 election, they were promised a community hospital, but progress on that has since evaporated as surely as the Labour majority did in Braintree. I have repeatedly raised the fate of that project in Parliament, and I will continue to do so. The primary care trust's latest position is that a full business case for the Braintree community hospital scheme will not be ready until March next year.

Those delays have already had real consequences for patient care locally. This afternoon, I hosted an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Farleigh hospice, which provides support for my constituents and others across mid-Essex. Last year, Farleigh cared for 2,663 people, but its year has closed with the news that the day hospice must vacate its premises on the site of the former St. Michael's hospital in Braintree by the beginning of next year, because the future of the site and of the community hospital that was supposed to be built there is still uncertain. I do not see the Government's commitment to local health care anywhere in the vicious circle that has trapped Braintree's community hospital project since 2005. We have a Government whose unprecedented investment has been matched only by its unconscionable waste. Will the Secretary of State for Health now demonstrate a true commitment

"to providing a healthcare system organised around the needs of the patient"-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 6 November 2007; Vol. 696, c. 1.]

by committing to build a community hospital in Braintree?

Unfortunately, the pace of change on education has left a lot to be desired. Some £1 billion has been invested in cutting truancy, but truancy rates have risen again recently with a hardcore of more than 200,000 children still regularly playing truant. The Government have failed to get to grips with keeping children in school until they are 16, but they now propose to keep children there until they are 18. I agree with the principle that improving skills among young people is both an economic and moral imperative. However, to think that greater participation can be achieved by the simple expedient of higher targets is at best naive, while to believe that either bribery or compulsion are the means to attain those targets is simply cynical.

I also want to sound a brief note of caution about one of the core principles of the Leitch review of skills. Lord Leitch's exhortation was to

"focus on economically valuable skills. Skill developments must provide real returns for individuals, employers and society."

That is right as far as it goes, but it has its origins in the Thomas Gradgrind school of thought, being "eminently practical" but lacking in essential humanity. We must remember the moral imperative as well as the economic imperative.

By way of simple example, I recently met my constituent, Mrs. Gina Fost, who is one of many people who are struggling to afford the cost of lip-reading and signing classes as a result of central Government meddling. Providers of adult community learning courses must follow guidance from the Learning and Skills Council. Residents in Braintree and Witham have seen their fees for lip-reading classes increase in the space of three or four years from nothing to £94 and finally this year to £186. The reason for those jumps is that the LSC does not view signing and lip-reading as "basic skills" worthy of full fee remission under the skills for life programme. Consequently, pensioners must pay 37.5 per cent. of the cost of the course themselves. To my way of thinking, however, there is no more important basic skill than the ability to communicate with others. The education and skills Bill will supposedly place new duties on the LSC to support free tuition for literacy and numeracy. If so, it ought to support free tuition for lip-reading and other basic skills, too.

We need to reduce complexity in the funding system, not reinforce it. We need to move from a target-led approach to a demand-led approach to skills. In the drive for skills, we need to remember that support for some skills is governed more by a moral than an economic imperative. One of the Government's besetting sins in the past 10 years has been the unholy alliance between profligate legislation, prodigal spending and parsimonious delivery. This year's Gracious Speech is nothing different, which is why I shall vote against it and support our amendment.

9.14 pm



Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about NEETs. Is he aware that the Government have spent a cumulative total of £1.6 billion on education maintenance allowance, but that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, training or employment has actually risen by more than 30 per cent. between 1997 and 2005? Does he really think that that is money well spent?

Mr. Illsley: Yes. That is an aspect that I am about to deal with. My constituency has the highest number of people in receipt of the education maintenance allowance, and that has gone a long way towards improving staying-on rates after the age of 16, so I am a big fan of EMA.


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