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Commons Chamber

Volume 281: debated on Tuesday 16 July 1996

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House Of Commons

Tuesday 16 July 1996

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Belfast Charitable Society Bill Lords

Read the Third time, and passed.

City Of Westminster Bill Lords (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 18 July.

Order Of Business

I have a short announcement about today's Opposition business. I understand that it is intended that the motions should be dealt with in the following order: the first debate will be on Ministry of Defence housing; and the second debate will be on energy policy. They will not be taken in the order that is shown on today's Order Paper.

Oral Answers To Questions

Health

Nhs Nurses (Recruitment)

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what efforts his Department is making to recruit nurses to the NHS. [35782]

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what recent representations he has received regarding the supply of nursing students. [35783]

My Department continues to promote a range of initiatives designed to attract suitable, high-calibre recruits to the nursing profession.

The Secretary of State must recognise that there is a severe shortage of nurses. Does he recall that, in 1983, 37,000 nurses qualified? His Department predicts that in 1997–98, only 9,000 nurses are likely to qualify. Is that not a disgrace, given the pressure that it puts on nurses in the national health service? Why did he not take notice of the Royal College of Nursing's recommendation two years ago when it warned him of the shortage?

First, what I take notice of on the question whether there is a shortage of nurses is the independent review body, which examined the matter and published its report earlier this year, together with the finding that there was not a generalised shortage of nursing staff in the NHS, although there are localised shortages of nurses with particular skills. The figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted are wrong. It is not true that 35,000, or even 37,000, nurses qualified each year in the 1980s. The figure for nurses going into basic training in the 1980s oscillated around 15,000 a year—a figure to which we are returning in the commissions that we are planning for this year.

Does the Minister acknowledge that the drop in nursing student numbers, combined with increased demand, has caused nursing shortages? Is there any evidence that the 14 per cent. increase in commissioning of training places will be sufficient to meet future demand for nurses?

I hoped that the Labour party would welcome last year's 8 per cent. increase in the number of nurses going into basic training. This year, there is a further 14 per cent. increase in the number of basic training commissions. That takes us back, as I told the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), to roughly the same level of new commissions for basic nurse training as existed in the 1980s. Since then, there has been a dramatic improvement in nurse training because of the introduction of Project 2000, which has led to a reduction in the number of training nurses who drop out of training because they find it unsatisfactory.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that NHS hospitals can provide not only refresher courses but sufficiently flexible terms and conditions for nurses to encourage the return to the NHS of qualified nurses who may have left to start families and who are now able and willing to give more time to nursing?

My hon. Friend is on to a very important point. If we are to ensure that we have the skilled people we need to deliver modern health care, we must of course have a proper level of training, but we must also ensure that NHS trusts are good employers. My hon. Friend suggests some important ways in which we can ensure that we have a well-motivated, fully trained work force. The moves that the Government are making on more locally determined terms for nurses' employment are an important enabling step down the road that he rightly points out.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the number of nurses who are now working in GP practices that are going in for primary care—a move that takes the strain off hospitals?

Yes, I can certainly join my hon. Friend in welcoming the huge growth in primary care nursing over the past 10 years. The number of practice nurses working in primary care 10 years ago was just under 2,000, but it is now 9,000. That is a fourfold increase in the nursing profession's commitment to primary care, which—as my hon. Friend rightly points out—is an important part of the health service.

Whatever the recruitment figures may have been last year, does the Secretary of State admit that, this year, there has been a triple blow to the morale of nurses in the health service? First, there was an independent recommendation on nurses' pay, to which the Government responded by giving nurses a pay rise below the rate of inflation. Secondly, huge amounts of time and money have been taken out of the health service by negotiating settlements on a local level. Out of 500 trusts, fewer than 200 have yet made offers. Thirdly, last week, although the Government recommended restraint to the House, they recommended that hon. Members vote a pay rise for themselves that is greater than the rise that they recommended for nurses. Nurses' morale is going down daily. What will the Secretary of State do to recover it—or is he absolutely oblivious to the problem?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on every one of the points that he made. The Nurses and Midwives Pay Review Body made a specific recommendation, which the Government accepted in full and are implementing. It is not true to say that the Government have introduced a nurses' pay settlement that is below the rate of inflation. The Government have accepted the recommendation of the independent review body that there should be locally determined pay for nurses, with a 2 per cent. floor to ensure that every nurse gets a basic minimum increase.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the days of that nurse of all nurses, the matron? Will he advocate the return of the matron to hospitals when it is possible and appropriate?

My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of professional leadership in the nursing profession, and the matron is one element that, in some trusts, has been found to be a means of achieving it. The most direct answer to the questions of my hon. Friend and of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is to remind them and the House that, since 1979, nurses' pay has risen by more than 70 per cent. in real terms. That reflects both the commitment to nursing that my hon. Friend seeks and the commitment to proper pay for which the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey argues.

Will the Secretary of State now accept that a real crisis is facing nursing in Britain? Will he explain to the House why nurses' morale has slumped, why nurse recruitment has collapsed and why the Government are still spending more new money on bureaucracy than they are on nurses? Will he also tell the House why uncertainty in the workplace is driving more NHS nurses away from providing valuable services? Today, will he announce that he will launch a national recruitment campaign to tackle the problem? Will he initiate talks with the Royal College of Nursing and nursing unions about the immediate crisis? Will he stop squandering the most precious asset of the NHS—its human resources? Nurses deserve better from the Government, and surely they should be getting some action from the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman has to square his rhetoric with reality. He talks about declining recruitment in nursing. In 1994–95, the figure for recruitment into nurse training was 11,400 commissions; this year, there are 14,300 commissions. I defy the hon. Gentleman to square an increase from 11,400 to 14,300 with his rhetoric about declining recruitment. His rhetoric is nonsense, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Health Authorities (Market Testing)

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on market testing by health authorities. [35784]

Market testing by trusts has proved very successful in generating savings for the national health service. Approximately £1 billion has been saved since it started. Health authorities are increasingly using the same techniques, although the available alternative would normally be an NHS trust.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that South Humber health authority intends to submit the ambulance service to market testing? While I accept and acknowledge that savings can be made, will he confirm that the health authority has no preferred option until the Humberside ambulance service has had an opportunity to ensure that its service is tested so that the benefits so far obtained can be acknowledged by the health authority?

I can confirm that there is no preferred option. I am concerned to ensure that, in such instances, there is absolutely fair play. I have gone into those and other instances carefully. Accusations of unfair play are usually made on behalf of the bidder, not the existing provider. I assure my hon. Friend that the regional office will ensure that there is fair play in the case that he mentioned.

Does the Minister recognise that a consequence of market testing at Hillingdon hospital in west London is that 54 cleaners, some of whom have worked there for 30 years, have been dismissed by the Pall Mall Services Group for refusing to take a pay cut of £35 a week? Does he not think that market testing is responsible for poverty wages for loyal workers within the national health service? Should not those 54 cleaners be reinstated on national health service conditions and repaid for the whole period for which they have been out of work because of the Pall Mall group's determination to make profits at the expense of loyal workers in the NHS?

On the contrary, the Pall Mall group, which adequately resources all the services that it provides, gives the workers in question rates that are above the nearest comparator—Heathrow. In the circumstances, they are well paid for the work that they do. In addition, they all received a lump sum to do away with the work restraints that they were putting on the service.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the money saved through market testing is in addition to the extra money that the Government have made available for the health service? Will he also confirm that the Opposition have pledged not a penny of additional money for the health service?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The £1 billion that has been saved since 1983 as a result of successful market testing, which has not only saved money but improved quality in many cases, should be set against the paltry £100 million which the Opposition allege that they could save and thereby transform the health service. They should make it plain what we would lose through that "efficiency" if ever there were a Labour Government, not what they would hope to gain.

Nhs Administrative Costs

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health when he last met the chairmen of health authorities to discuss administrative costs. [35785]

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what proposals he has to reduce bureaucracy in the NHS. [35787]

14.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement about administrative costs in the NHS. [35795]

Our programme to streamline NHS management will release £300 million for patient care over the two years ending next March.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the internal market has proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare, which the British Medical Association estimates costs £1.7 billion a year? Will he confirm that, since the baseline of 1989, 20,000 new managers have been put in post at the cost of 50,000 nurses? Is he aware that the cost of that additional bureaucracy to the people of Hemsworth is £2.6 million? The people of Hems worth want not pen pushers but nurses and better clinical care.

Both the statistics that the hon. Gentleman quotes, although much beloved of Labour Front-Bench Members, are simply wrong. First, the hon. Gentleman says that there are 20,000 new senior managers. As the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) knows well, even if the hon. Gentleman does not, that is a new classification, which was introduced in the mid-1980s. If Labour Members really believe that there was no senior manager in the health service before 1985, they are in a tiny minority. It is clearly absurd. The 20,000 new senior managers is a nonsense statistic, and the hon. Lady knows it. Secondly, the only way in which the hon. Lady can concoct the statistic of 50,000 fewer nurses is by including trainees in 1984 and excluding them in 1994. If one takes honest figures over those 10 years, the figure is not 50,000 fewer, but 20,000 more nurses.

Given what the Secretary of State has said, why does he think that the BMA and others are so strongly critical of the spiralling costs of administration and transaction? Can he share with me the anger that my constituents feel when they see patient services such as urology services under threat in the local hospital, and when valued local facilities are in danger of being transferred to less convenient neighbouring hospitals? What does he have to say to my constituents about that?

I have two things to say to the hon. Lady and her constituents about administrative costs in the health service. First, those costs have grown because, as the hon Lady's predecessor—the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett)—acknowledged, the traditional NHS was undermanaged. Secondly, let us consider how much they have grown. The numbers of administration and clerical staff in the health service have increased by 22 per cent. in 10 years. To put that in perspective, the numbers of medical and dental staff in the health service are up by 21 per cent.—almost the same percentage in the same period. The numbers of professional and technical staff of the health service have increased in the same period by 28 per cent. During that period of growth of investment in management, there has been a 41 per cent. increase in patient treatments in the health service. That is the context that the hon. Lady should point out to her constituents.

When will the Secretary of State recognise that the NHS is now suffering from the disease of bureaucracy, and that its complications include waste and secrecy? For instance, in Gwent, a lady manager's employment was terminated and she received £35,000 in compensation, but a few days later she was re-engaged, at a salary of £39,000 per annum. Surely such money would be better spent on more, and better-paid, nurses and on re-opening the wards that have been closed in recent years?

The problem that the Labour party faces in talking about management and administration costs in the health service is that Labour Members voted against £100 million of administrative savings in the health service when they opposed the abolition of regional health authorities. The hon. Member for Peckham has offered the population a recantation for a mistaken vote on the regional health authorities. She recognises that Labour Members made a mistake in not taking that £100 million and she is now on the verge of apologising to the electorate for their failure to take a £100 million saving that was available.

The Government are well ahead of the hon. Member for Peckham. Not only have we taken that £100 million, but we have put in place clear plans to deliver an additional £200 million—£300 million of administrative savings. The hon. Lady offers a paltry £100 million, which she opposed when the opportunity presented itself.

Has my right hon. Friend received any representations from Labour Front Benchers regarding his 5 per cent. cut in NHS administration costs, which are already amounting to about £140 million? Does he know whether the Labour party thinks that this is too much, too little or just right?

When I announced £140 million extra saving through tight controls on bureaucracy in the health service, as my hon. Friend rightly says, Labour Members dismissed it as too little. Nine months later, they presented a programme designed to deliver not £140 million, but £100 million.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the incessant attacks on national health service managers? Does he agree that the national health service was undermanaged for many years and that managers are now delivering a more efficient, cost-effective and better health service?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Earlier, I quoted figures that show that there has been an increase in the number of medical, dental and nursing staff in the national health service, and that there has also been an increase in the number of administrative support staff. As a result, patient treatment is growing faster than any of the statistics.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the right circumstances, the best way to save taxpayers' money and to ensure that it goes to patient care is to amalgamate trusts? Can we expect an early and quick decision on the amalgamation of the trusts on the Isle of Wight? We are all in favour of it and we want to see it get under way as soon as possible.

I will not make an announcement from the Dispatch Box this afternoon in relation to my hon. Friend's request. However, I say to my hon. Friend and to trusts that are contemplating merger proposals that there are very few administrative savings available to trusts that merge that are not available to the same trusts if they choose to organise their affairs differently while remaining separate. What I look for in proposals to reorganise patient care is improved patient care, not simply changed bureaucratic arrangements.

Will the Secretary of State admit that even though he promises to cut back on the £1.5 billion in extra bureaucracy, he cannot unless he scraps the system that is creating it: the internal market? Is it not cynical of him to demand fewer managers while promoting a system that requires more managers? Will he admit that the right way to ensure minimum bureaucracy is to scrap the annual contracts, scrap the extra-contractual referrals and the protocol compliance, scrap the hundreds of thousands of invoices every year and scrap the national health service internal market?

On behalf of the hon. Lady's many friends on the Government Benches, I wish her well in her campaign for re-election to the shadow Cabinet. I extend the sympathy of every Government Member to the hon. Lady because of the predicament in which she finds herself. She would dearly love to be able to offer more money to the health service but her Presbyterian colleague, the shadow Chancellor, will not let her do that. He has left her making bricks without straw.

The hon. Lady referred to management costs. One day, she says that £1.5 billion can be saved in management costs, and then I point out that that is more than half the total that we spend; the next day, she cuts the figure to one fifteenth and £1.5 billion suddenly becomes £100 million. The inconvenience with £100 million is that it is one third of the amount that the Government are already committed to save.

Notwithstanding the huge reductions in administrative costs brought about by the abolition of the regional health authorities, will my right hon. Friend confirm that increased administrative costs elsewhere in the NHS have led to better management and to more patient treatments? Will he look at how much further the clerical and paperwork undertaken by hospital doctors can be cut, even if it means employing more administrative staff?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point that is easily overlooked. I have emphasised that there has been a 21 per cent. increase in the number of medical and dental staff in the NHS over the past 10 years. If we do not provide administrative support to those doctors and dentists, they end up doing it themselves instead of delivering patient services. My hon. Friend is quite right: if we want an efficient use of the resources available to the health service, we have to provide administrative support staff as well as professional staff.

Doctors (Recruitment)

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health when he last met chairmen of health trusts to discuss the impact of levels of health expenditure on the future supply of doctors from universities.[35786]

I have frequent meetings with chairmen of national health service trusts to discuss a range of issues, including how best to utilise the £459 million that trusts receive in recognition of the additional costs of teaching undergraduate medical and dental students.

Does the Minister agree that the Government's university funding cuts are having a severe effect on medical schools and, therefore, a direct impact on patient care? Is it not just plain folly for the Government to think that they can continue to cut medical school funding without ensuring that there will be a severe shortage of doctors in the future in the national health service?

The conclusion that the hon. Lady reaches is quite wrong. She recognises a point that was made by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology in its report last year. The Government responded to the report by asking the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals for its view. That is why we set up the Richards review, which will report in due course. It will look at issues such as work load pressures, recruitment difficulties and future NHS support for new posts. The Government's continuing medical education policy aims to build upon the number of existing students. That is why we have announced an increase of 500 students before 2000, in order to build on our excellent record of creating more hospital doctors and more doctors per specialty than ever before.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that 22,500 more general practitioners and dentists are working in the health service now than in 1979? Is that not a clear result of the Government's unique commitment to extra funding for that purpose?

My hon. Friend is right, and that applies to all doctors and to all specialties across the health service. It illustrates the fact that the Government are prepared to back with action our commitment to invest in the national health service—unlike the Labour party, which refuses to put a precise figure on its projected investment in the NHS on a year-on-year basis.

Purchasing Costs

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what monitoring he is currently undertaking of purchasing costs. [35788]

Our continuing aim is to improve care for patients and to shorten waiting times, while minimising costs. Following our latest scrutiny, we plan to reduce administration costs by £40 million—money that can be freed for wider national health service investment.

I make no apologies for returning to the effects of the common market—the internal market—and the impact that it is having in Salford in my constituency. As a consequence, we need more nurses and doctors and more patient care. We do not need the cuts that are now taking place in the national health service as a result of the internal market. What will the Minister do about that?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman perhaps returned inadvertently to a feud of yesteryear within his party which might be reflected in present discussions about the health service and how to take matters forward.

I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, while Opposition Front Benchers talk in absurd terms about £15 billion one day and £100 million the next, the Government have been getting on with pruning bureaucracy where possible. For example, the efficiency scrutiny, "Seeing the Wood, Sparing the Trees", which deals precisely with the purchasing mechanism, will release £40 million for patient care. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman might welcome that.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that fundholding practitioners, which are important in purchasing services and treatment, are able to carry over funds from year to year? If that is so, can my hon. Friend explain why trust hospitals and trusts, such as the East Cheshire NHS trust, are not also able to carry over funds from one year to another in order to take account of exceptional circumstances that occur from time to time? That would surely encourage efficiency and enable trusts to meet exceptional costs without difficulty.

My hon. Friend, as an expert in such matters, will know that there are controls on both. If GP fundholders manage to make savings in any given year, they are able to adjust—together with the health authority—the plans to purchase additional care for patients. We expect hospital trusts to manage their budgets in a sensible way and, if there are differences from year to year, we expect them to manage that over time.

Cumberland Infirmary

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the proposed private finance initiative scheme for the Cumberland infirmary in Carlisle. [35789]

The scheme is progressing well. A preferred bidder has been identified and the full business case is expected to be submitted soon.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he realise that, when I spoke to the chief executive some three weeks ago, he talked of reducing the number of beds in the new hospital to 450? Since then, pressure has been applied by Cumbria county council, medical consultants and me and, fortunately, that figure has increased to 474—the minimum number necessary. Will the Minister clarify whether any of those beds will be private beds? Will he clarify also the funding of that scheme? It was anticipated originally that the single site would create savings of £1.2 million, but the latest estimate is that there will be a deficit of £500,000. Will that money come from the Government, or will it come directly out of patient care?

Let me correct the hon. Gentleman's original point about the number of beds. Two years ago, when the hospital was publicly funded, there were approximately 470, as there are now. There has been no change since then.

As for the hon. Gentleman's point about funding, the health authority and the trust are currently looking into precisely that issue.

If the PFI system were scrapped, would that not put at risk not only the Cumberland infirmary project in Carlisle but the Darenth Park proposal in my area? Would that risk not arise directly from the scrapping of the system, which is supported by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman)—who does not propose, and is not being allowed to propose, putting in money from the taxpayer?

Absolutely. Many schemes all over the country, of which the Carlisle scheme is one, had to wait for nearly 30 years. They got nowhere with traditional funding. Now we are making progress everywhere. I must tell my hon. Friends that some hospitals would not be built if the Labour party's hostility to the private finance initiative were maintained. The PFI is our only hope when it comes to building some hospitals.

Is not the PFI in Carlisle in the same sorry state—the same mess—as it is everywhere else in the country? Have not Ministers been travelling up and down the country making promises, and, as they have in Carlisle, building up expectations on which they know that they cannot deliver? Is it not surprising that even the Prime Minister has been reported as saying that he is particularly anxious about health, no major PFI hospital deals having yet been signed?

Will the Minister now apologise to the House, and to the people of Carlisle and elsewhere, for the 17 per cent. cut in next year's national health service capital programme? Will he tell patients and clinicians in Carlisle, who have been waiting for years, when they will have a new hospital, and when the Government will put their PFI house in order?

The hon. Gentleman huffs and puffs a great deal, as he does at every Question Time when this subject arises. In fact, the PFI is proceeding extremely well. It is bringing the prospect of new hospitals, or hospital facilities, to places where such provision could not be envisaged under traditional procedures. One factor which stands in the way of that is the Labour party's old-fashioned attitude, which cannot conceive of the existence of new, radical measures to deal with the problem. The hon. Gentleman ought to realise that he is backing a loser.

Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the paradox that, while the deputy leader of the Labour party claims to have invented the PFI, Labour Back Benchers spend their time criticising it?

Tuberculosis

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what steps he is taking to reduce the incidence of tuberculosis. [35790]

The United Kingdom has an excellent record on tuberculosis control, and we are determined that that should remain the case. Most recently, we have published two reports from the interdepartmental working group on tuberculosis, "The Control of Tuberculosis at Local Level" and "Tuberculosis and Homeless People".

May I ask a question of which I have given notice to the Minister's private office? In what year did the Department of Health first learn of the likely medical consequences—tuberculosis, and other illnesses—of the alleged nuclear incident at Aldermaston in 1958?

One never quite knows where the spirit of Linlithgow is going to land. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he would be stretching the question a little.

The clinical condition of tuberculosis is brought about by exposure to bacterial infection. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, it is not related to exposure to radiation.

The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment—COMARE—has considered allegations of an increased incidence of childhood cancer around a number of nuclear establishments. Its third report did not include Royal Air Force sites at Greenham Common. In that report, COMARE recommended that a nationwide study of the geographical distribution of the incidence of childhood cancer should be undertaken. The study is under way and COMARE will consider all new data that are available in assessing whether there is an association between local levels of contamination and the incidence of cancer.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the incidence of antibiotics becoming immune in the treatment of tuberculosis? If so, is there not a case for advising the medical profession to reserve stronger-acting antibiotics for the serious diseases rather than prescribing them on a more prophylactic basis for less serious diseases?

We have had groups examining these matters. We are aware of drug-resistant TB, and I am happy to say that it is at low levels in the United Kingdom. That does not mean that such TB is resistant to all drugs. It is resistant to some, however, and therefore is more complex to treat. An expert working group has been established to examine these matters and to bring forward recommendations.

Read Codes

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will publish his assessment of the rate of progress to be made in implementing Read codes in clinical settings in the NHS by 1 January (a) 1997, (b)1998 and (c) 1999. [35791]

I thank the Minister for his answer. In addition to the widespread concerns about the implementation of Read codes, will he confirm that his Department wrote to Dr. Read's private company, CAMS, last month stating, and I quote—[Horn. MEMBERS: "No."]—that there was a deliberate attempt—

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that there is no quoting during Question Time. Please paraphrase.

Will the Minister confirm that his Department wrote to Computer Aided Medical Supplies—Dr. Read's private company, which is getting a nice little earner out of the NHS—to say that there was a deliberate attempt to deceive the Department of Health's auditors? Does the Minister agree that the time has come to re-examine the relationship between the NHS's centre for coding and classification, which is run by Dr. Read, and CAMS, the company owned by Dr. Read? Should we now consider renaming CAMS as SCAM, as it is making not simply money but illegal money out of the NHS?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the National Audit Office is conducting a preliminary investigation into the arrangements between CAMS and the national health service precisely to examine value-for-money questions and questions of probity. We should wait until that report is clear to decide how we should proceed.

Diabetics

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what is his estimate of the current number of insulin-dependent diabetics and non-insulin-dependent diabetics in the United Kingdom. [35792]

The health survey for England 1994 estimated that the prevalence of diabetics was approximately 2.4 per cent. Studies suggest that 80 per cent. of people with diabetes are non-insulin dependent.

Is the Minister aware that the number of new cases of diabetes is rising each year and that the estimated cost to the national health service is between £1.4 billion and £1.8 billion a year? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more resources targeted directly at finding the causes, ameliorating and eventually curing diabetes would be a wonderful investment for the NHS, and would in the end prevent much human misery as well as save much public cash?

I agree that diabetes is treated extremely seriously by the NHS. We need to combine treatment, care, prevention and cure where possible, and research is a party to all that. The fact that we have the sub-group of the clinical outcomes group examining the purchaser guidance that should be developed, based on the St. Vincent's task force recommendations, should be of some comfort to the hon. Gentleman. The report is expected at about the end of the year. In addition, both the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health have made about £5 million available for major research projects. That, too, is the way forward.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the chronic disease management programme has been very successful in improving standards of care for people suffering from diabetes?

If I heard my hon. Friend correctly, he said that the chronic disease management programme was playing an important part in that, and I am happy to say that more than 90 per cent. of general practitioners now run this programme for diabetes, which, of course, enables them to keep a register in their surgeries, to see their patients once a year and to check, in particular, the eyes and feet, as recommended by St. Vincent's.

Nhs Trusts (Cost Improvement Programmes)

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health when he last met chief executives of health trusts to discuss the current cost improvement programmes. [35793]

The regional offices of the NHS executive consider the plans of each trust on my behalf, including efficiency gains negotiated with them.

When the Secretary of State next meets Mr. Keith Parsons, the part-time chief executive of Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS trust, will he ask him to explain to the people of Liverpool how he is able to charter an airplane to bring him from a medical conference in Edinburgh to attend the last board meeting of the trust, and then to take him back again, while he is seeking to close four wards in Broadgreen hospital in my constituency, two of which are proving impossible to close because of so-called "over-activity"—in other words, too many orthopaedic geriatric patients who desperately need the services that those wards provide?

What I will do if I meet this gentleman is congratulate him on the fact that his hospital was the first hospital in the NHS to declare that it had no people on its waiting list waiting for more than 12 months. We might have heard that from the hon. Lady when commenting on the affairs of her constituency.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 July. [35812]

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Today marks the launch of the Gun Control Network by the families of the victims of Hungerford and Dunblane. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge the strength of the case against the private ownership of handguns? Will he accept that such a measure to ban them would receive the support of the overwhelming majority of the British people?

I am, of course, aware of the strength of feeling on this issue and of the recent petition calling for strengthened control over firearms. As the hon. Lady knows, the Government have been careful to consult the Opposition parties on this issue from the outset, and I am delighted that, thus far, we have received their firm support for the way in which we are proceeding. Since 1979, we have strengthened firearms controls. As soon as we receive the report from Lord Cullen, we will consider it with great care. I am happy to reiterate to the House that, in the event it is needed, we have preserved a legislative slot to take any action that is required.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 July. [35813]

In the light of the great news that Lite-On and LG are bringing thousands of new jobs to Scotland and Wales, does my right hon. Friend agree that breaking up the United Kingdom, creating an extra tier of regional government, surrounding it all in bureaucracy and making the Scots pay more tax is likely to scare away potential new investors? Is this not new Labour being new danger?

I am delighted to welcome these substantial new investments to Scotland and Wales. They are the latest of a large number of inward investments that we have seen not only in Scotland and Wales but in other parts of the United Kingdom. I certainly hope that we shall get more. They are coming here predominantly because of the economic environment—[interruption]—because this country is an economic success story—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) is chuntering in the back row. He seems to forget that they have been coming here for 15 years under Conservative policies, because we have created a combination of lower inflation, lower taxes and lower costs. That is attractive not just to companies in this country but to world investors seeking the right country in which to place their money. I am delighted that they place it here. It would be a tragedy if policies were followed that would prevent them from doing so in future.

Does the Prime Minister recall promising the country at the previous general election that he would balance the budget? How does he square that with today's further disastrous borrowing figures which show that, leaving aside privatisation moneys, the Government's overdraft this year is running at a higher level than at the same time last year?

If the right hon. Gentleman would look carefully at today's borrowing figures, he would see that they are entirely consistent with the economic forecast and that they confirm the excellent state of the economy—sustainable growth, low inflation and falling Government borrowing. As for comparatives, since 1979, average borrowing as a proportion of gross domestic product has been just under one half as much as under the previous Labour Government.

Perhaps the Prime Minister will just confirm that this Conservative Government have received more in North sea oil revenues and from privatising the nation's assets than the borrowing requirement under the last Labour Government. That is what his Government have had. Is it not also a fact that, under his prime ministership, the public debt has doubled? Will he confirm this statistic and answer this question directly: is it not the case that, as a result of his Government's borrowing policies, every family in this country now pays £1,000 a year in tax, not for better services in respect of health, education and law and order but just to service the debt that he has created? Is that right or is it wrong?

The right hon. Gentleman is completely misleading the House. He knows what resources have been spent in recent years. I will tell him where they have gone—they have gone on health, education, defence and public services. The right hon. Gentleman is the man who says that he wants to keep taxes down, yet he wants to put public expenditure up. The reality is that, whereas he may play games in opposition, we have to deal with the realities of producing a successful economy, as we have done in recent years and as we will do in the years to come.

Not a single one of those figures did the Prime Minister dispute—£1,000 a year in tax just to service the debt. Let me tell the Prime Minister that, if he wants to have a better balance in public spending, why not tackle the problems of long-term unemployment which have put up the bills for people in this country? Is it not the truth—[Interruption.] That is the party that has spent on welfare and unemployment but lowered spending on investment for the country's future. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, if an ordinary member of the public had run an overdraft as large as this, he would have been told that his time was up and his home should be repossessed? Is that not the fate so richly deserved by this Government and this Prime Minister?

Dear, oh dear. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about success in dealing with unemployment, perhaps he would care to acknowledge that we have the lowest rate of unemployment of any significant nation in western Europe; that unemployment has been falling for three years, which it has not been doing anywhere else; that every single Labour Government we have ever been cursed with have increased unemployment dramatically; that he has policies that would increase the costs of employers, which would create unemployment; and that one of his unions is asking for a minimum wage of £6.03 an hour, which would cost an enormous amount in unemployment.

While the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about economic performance, let me mention the things that he neglected to mention: the lowest level of inflation for 50 years; the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years—[HON. MEMBERS: "More."]—four years of falling unemployment and increasing employment—[HON. MEMBERS: "More."]—the lowest rate of basic tax for 50 years—[HON. MEMBERS: "More."]—disposable income rising way above inflation—[HON. MEMBERS: "More."]—No. 1 in Europe for investment—[HON. MEMBERS: "More."]—in the interests of other questioners, I shall stop there, but there is far more to the success of the Government's policies.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 July. [35814]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that no responsible Prime Minister would weaken Britain's veto in Europe by giving Brussels more powers to determine matters that should be voted on and discussed in the House? Does not new Labour wish to surrender Britain's veto in Europe? Does not new, phoney Labour mean new, real danger for residents in Basildon, Southend and the whole country?

My hon. Friend should not suggest that the dangers from those policies are in only Basildon and Southend. They are in every constituency around the land. He is quite right.

The Government are not prepared to see our veto eroded, as the Labour party apparently is. On issues of national and constitutional significance, any Government should be prepared to protect British interests, if necessary by using the veto and saying no. I regret that the Opposition are committed to undermining the veto. If they say that they are never going to be isolated in Europe, what they are saying is that they would never use the veto whether it was in this country's interests or not. They would follow the line determined by our European partners. That is their policy out of their own mouths, and upon that let them be judged.

But Britain's national debt has doubled since the Prime Minister took office. Britain's annual debt has doubled against what the Prime Minister said that it would be two years ago. Is the Prime Minister prepared to confirm the words of his own Chancellor of the Exchequer in spring this year when he said that, when public borrowing was around £30 billion a year, tax cuts were irresponsible?

As to the Budget, the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see. It is some months away. We will deal prudently, as we have always done, with that aspect.

I seem to remember the right hon. Gentleman's party supporting the largest public borrowing that we have ever seen at any stage in this country. Under this Government, the economy has gone from strength to strength to strength. If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about public borrowing, as I am, I invite him and the leader of the Labour party to support the Government in the public expenditure decisions that we will have to take in the forthcoming public expenditure round. We will judge by their words whether they support the decisions that we will take in the public spending round. If they support restraint, it will be the first time that they have done so.

In view of the industrial relations unrest in the Post Office, will my right hon. Friend give consideration not merely to the suspension of the monopoly but to the application of a law of contract to all parties in the Post Office?

I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend about the likely dangers of a Post Office strike. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is giving consideration to suspension of the monopoly and I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's further point.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 July. [35815]

The Prime Minister will be aware that last year's tax revenue fell short by a staggering £7 billion. Likewise, last year's public sector borrowing requirement was £10 billion greater than forecast 16 months previously. Does he agree that, if a managing director in the private sector made such an overestimate of a company's income and plunged it into such huge debt, he would be sacked? What is the Prime Minister going to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well the degrees of difficulty in determining tax revenue. Of course, his way of determining tax revenue would be to support his leader in increasing taxes, with the large range of extra taxes that the Labour party is already planning. He might as well admit it.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 July. [35816]

In considering the very sad events in Ulster and welcoming the deployment of extra troops there, I should like to ask whether my right hon. Friend agrees that the overwhelming priority must be the restoration of security, which must involve whatever resources and legal powers the security forces require.

Self-evidently, the overwhelming need is to restore normal law and order to the Province so that problems are solved by dialogue and not by violence and confrontation. We must continue to do whatever we can to ensure that the bomb in Enniskillen—whoever turns out to be responsible for it—does not relaunch the cycle of violence that has so scarred life in Northern Ireland in recent years. I particularly welcome the restraint that has been shown by loyalist groups and I very much hope that they will continue to show that restraint in future. The security forces have our full support. They will continue to have our full support in the Province and in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Q6.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 July. [35817]

Given that 21 Conservative Back Benchers have signed an early-day motion expressing serious concern about the sale of Ministry of Defence homes and that one of them described it as a half-baked scheme, deeply upsetting to service families, how do the Prime Minister and the Government justify the sale and the £900 million a year rent bill to the British public?

The hon. Lady is mistaken in what she says and in her judgment. The service chiefs support the sale. They have recognised and said publicly that it will raise £1.5 billion in public revenue. The Labour party has said a great deal about public borrowing. Will they vote against the £1.5 billion that the sale will bring into the public revenue and cut borrowing, or will it be another occasion when the leader of the Labour party says one thing and votes in a quite different way?

Points Of Order

3.31 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wrote to you yesterday enclosing a piece of House of Commons notepaper that had been transformed into a Labour party recruiting document. I registered my interest as I felt that I could make valuable use of such documentation in my own constituency. I refrained from doing so, because it is my understanding that it would be a breach of regulations and, as a supporter of law and order, I would not wish to deviate from the straight and narrow.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), who has apologised to me for his misuse of the House emblem and agreed to reimburse the House authorities for all the costs that have been incurred.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am so relieved that you have managed to recognise an elder Member. The Secretary of State for Health a little earlier used the word Presbyterian in a tone that suggested disapprobation. Would the House and would he recognise that the most principled and the most independent-minded Members of this place are Presbyterians like myself, and proud of it?

That is barely a point of order, but as I seldom recognise the aging Member, I was prepared to listen to him today.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance on the ten-minute Bill that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) is about to present. As she was the council leader who presided over and covered up the most appalling abuse in homes in Islington, will you rule as to whether she has a declarable interest in introducing the debate?

The hon. Lady has no declarable interest. The House should exercise the tolerance that I expect of it and listen to the hon. Lady. I have no idea what the hon. Lady has to say, so I think that we should hear her out.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As you know, tomorrow we shall have Trade and Industry questions, and I have Question 2. In consequence, a letter was sent to me, probably inadvertently, by the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), whom I have informed that I intended to raise the matter. The hon. Gentleman's brief letter says:

"I should be most grateful if you could spare the time to attend a brief discussion with DTI Ministers at 2.15 pm on Wednesday, 17 July. Your contribution to DTI Question Time at 2.30 pm is much appreciated, and this will be an opportunity to ensure that the resultant exchanges are, as far as possible, beneficial to all concerned.
The meeting will be held in the Large Ministerial Conference Room.
I look forward to seeing you there".
Is it in order for Ministers to meet hon. Members to go through questions and arrange what should take place in the House?

Of course it is in order for Ministers and Members to meet on any issue. But I am sure that Opposition Members wish that they were sufficiently fortunate for more such letters to come their way.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Could the issue behind the ten-minute Bill that we are about to deal with be held to be sub judice? It has been reported in the press that Mr. Demetrious Panton, who was abused as a resident of an Islington council home, is suing the council and will summons its former leader, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), to give evidence. Is it not then wrong for the hon. Lady to introduce a ten-minute Bill dealing with the banning of paedophiles? [HON. MEMBERS: "Did the hon. Gentleman give notice?"] Yes, I did.

Order. I will not have these arguments across the Floor of the House. I am assuming that the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) has already given notice.

The hon. Gentleman assures me that that is the case. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Order. Probably at 2.30 or perhaps 3.30. I know the way in which things happen in the House; I have been here too long not to understand all that. I can assure the hon. Member for Hendon, South that had the matter been sub judice, it would not have appeared on the Order Paper today.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. One of the great benefits of your becoming Speaker was that you stamped on a procedure used by certain Members before that time—talking among themselves to drown out an hon. Member who was speaking. It is one of our great privileges to be heard when we speak on behalf of our constituents in this place. During last night's debate on assisted places, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was not actually heckled—that might have been fairer—Conservative Members talked among themselves to drown out a speech that they dared not listen to. May I ask you, Madam Speaker, to rule with a firm rod those who would stop Members speaking or being heard in the House?

I was not, of course, in the Chair throughout the whole of yesterday's proceedings, but I am sure that my deputy dealt with the matter correctly. I have always said that in this House, Members of Parliament do not have to listen to what others say, but by jove, the Member who is speaking must be heard. There is an important distinction between the two. If hon. Members do not want to listen, they must close their ears and keep quiet, or leave the Chamber. Whoever has the Floor will be heard.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My point arises from the Prime Minister's final reply during Prime Minister's questions, and from the Government amendment that we shall soon debate to the Opposition motion on the sale of married quarters. The Prime Minister said that the service chiefs support that sale. I should like guidance from you, Madam Speaker, on what protection can be given to the chiefs of staff against such liberal interpretation of what they have said. As a Member of the Defence Select Committee, I know that the chiefs of staff have said that

"the benefits … outweigh the risks"—

Order. I do not defend the chiefs of staff, who are quite capable of defending themselves.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that if he disagrees with what the Prime Minister or anyone else says, he has an opportunity in the forthcoming debate to get up and say so and to correct what he believes to be wrong. 'That is the way in which we proceed here—by making corrections and comments across the Floor of the House, and not by seeking to make political points through the Chair.

Protection And Education Of Children

3.39 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the regulation of short-notice and temporary teachers.
In bringing the Bill before the House, I seek to address vital issues that affect every child, every day, in every school. The Bill concerns the regulation of supply teachers, and the threat to children created by the gap in legislation that I have uncovered is extremely grave and potentially disastrous.

If legislation is not introduced, we shall all be guilty of failing to ensure, first, that our children are properly protected in school and, secondly, that they are being taught to the highest educational standards. A survey by the Department for Education and Employment found that one in 25 teachers in school is a supply teacher. But from the child's point of view, when heads and others who do not normally teach are discounted, it is likely that one in 15 or one in 20 classes is taught by a supply teacher—more than two classes every week for every child. We are talking about 7 per cent. of a school's budget.

Since we delegated responsibilities to schools, most head teachers come to school at 7.30 in the morning. They will not make 50 telephone calls to teachers whom they know to find a supply teacher, but will instead make one call to a private supply teacher agency. The Department's survey found that 70 per cent. of supply teachers in inner London and 42 per cent. in outer London were recruited through private supply agencies.

The agencies are here to stay. Some provide a first-class service—others do not. All work in an unregulated market where rogue operators are able to prosper. [Interruption.] Like all parents, I want to feel certain that my child is safe and is being well taught. At present, no parent can be certain. [Interruption.]

The agencies register as employment agencies, and have enjoyed substantial deregulation as part of the Government's obsessive dogma. Anybody can set up as a supply teacher agency in their front room without being vetted. I have come across Classic Services Ltd. in Porth, South Glamorgan. It was a temping agency for crane operators, but it got wind of the fact that supply teaching was a lucrative business and decided to branch out. That certainly gives a new meaning to lifting standards.

I have three serious concerns about the legal framework. First, agencies are not compelled by law to carry out essential checks on criminal records, health, qualifications and first-hand references and on whether the applicant is on the Department's list 99 of persons barred from teaching. In Manchester, the Select temping agency sent its director into a school to drum up business. The headmaster recognised the director as someone who was on the Department's list 99 of banned teachers. The director was an ex-headmaster who had been banned from teaching after being convicted of theft.

A French teacher was turned down by a reputable agency, Timeplan, because her reference said that she was
"very needy ․ somewhat unstable"
and concluded:
"l am therefore unable to recommend her".
She was then taken on by People agency, which now calls itself Recruit, which took her on without checking her and placed her in a school in Southwark. There she behaved inappropriately with boys, seduced two of them and falsely accused them of raping her. Although the truth came out, it was after the lives of the two lads and their families had been ruined.

Another agency took on a teacher without doing a police check that would have uncovered two convictions for indecent behaviour. He was sent to a school in Hackney—[Interruption.]

Order. I have had heard enough. [Interruption.] Order. Hon. Members who do not want to listen can leave; those who want to hear should stay and listen.

The teacher was sent to a school in Hackney and has since been convicted of abusing two children in his care. HMS Education Personnel agency sent a young supply teacher to the Lonesome first school in Mitcham. On her second day at the school, she gagged three children with sellotape after they failed to keep quiet. Those horror stories are probably the tip of an iceberg. They result from a simple failure to check.

My second concern is about standards. When agency nurses are recruited, they have to be interviewed by qualified nurses under the Nurses Agencies Act 1957. Anyone can interview a supply teacher—even I or you, Madam Speaker. Many supply teachers come from overseas and so do not have qualified teacher status. They may be competent, but their qualifications are not assessed. Permanent supply teachers from overseas have to be assessed and have to do additional training, if necessary, to obtain qualified teacher status.

Agencies cut corners to make money. I have seen an advertisement from Recruit plc with the offer, "Book 10 teacher days and get one free." An agency in Ealing offered schools £10 off a teacher if they booked before Christmas. In that climate, quality cannot be assured. It is no wonder that when Newham withdrew delegation from a primary school judged by the Office for Standards in Education to be failing, it found that half the staff were supply teachers.

My third concern springs from the way in which tax loopholes are exploited. Any copy of TNT Magazine, the free trade journal targeted at Australians and New Zealanders, contains endless ads from supply teacher agencies, among which are some from companies such as Kensington Ltd. They offer young Australian teachers off-the-shelf companies for £50 to £75 if they want headed notepaper. An agency such as Protem will find the teacher a supply job. The wages will be paid into the company and thus no tax, national insurance or VAT is payable. By the time the tax authorities catch up, the teacher has left the country.

When my researcher, masquerading as an Australian supply teacher, rang Protem, it positively encouraged her to work through an off-the-shelf company. That tax fiddle is not only outrageous but raises an another unresolved issue: who is responsible for personal and public liability insurance in such circumstances—the teacher, the school, the agency, or the local education authority? No one knows, so we are all at risk.

Our children deserve better. The issue is too big and too important to be left to the vagaries of the free market. Supply teacher agencies are a permanent feature, but that makes it all the more important to legislate to eliminate the cowboys. The reputable agencies support my proposals, as do the representative organisations in the teaching world. Two days after the long title of my Bill appeared on the Order Paper, the Government issued a circular. I welcome that advance, but it is not enough. It does not regulate by law the private supply teachers agencies.

My Bill would: first, create a statutory framework to vet agencies before registration; secondly, insist on essential checks to protect the welfare of our children; thirdly, provide for annual unannounced inspections by Government inspectors; fourthly, ensure that supply teachers from overseas are brought into the scheme that operates for permanent overseas trained teachers, with the agencies footing the bill; fifthly, put in place a bonding system for private agencies modelled on the Association of British Travel Agents scheme for travel agents; and, sixthly, ensure that the cost of the legislation is met by the agencies.

We cannot wait for further scandals. Parliament must act promptly. My Bill deserves the support of the whole House so that we can legislate swiftly in the interests of schools, teachers and, most importantly, in the interests of all our children.

3.48 pm

I oppose the Bill moved by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). First, I should like to put it into its proper context. All hon. Members know that a ten-minute Bill at this stage in a Session cannot possibly be considered, and that it has no chance of becoming law. Therefore, all that counts for the Bill is its introduction today. It seems to be a reasonable measure, and it was very reasonably introduced by the hon. Lady. As she said, it would improve child protection, which Conservative Members support. If the measure were a serious attempt to legislate, I might well support it.

However, many hon. Members, including some Labour Members, have questions about the Bill. Our decision on whether to support it must rely on the answers to those questions. From what I have heard today, I fear that the questions that I shall pose have not yet been answered. Why is the hon. Member for Barking introducing the Bill, and why now?

As has been mentioned by hon. Members in sedentary interventions, the hon. Lady was the leader of Islington council for 10 years, until 1992. No one can now be unaware of what happened in Islington council's children's homes. She told the House that her Bill seeks
"to address vital issues that affect every child, every day".
Vital issues affected children in Islington every day.

As the Evening Standard said on 23 May 1995:
"An era that allowed pimps and paedophiles to flourish unchallenged at the heart of child care in Islington, corrupting and seducing vulnerable children bestowed into their care, is finally over. It has taken three and a half years"—[Interruption.]

I do not, of course, seek to blame the hon. Member for Barking personally for that. In the context of the Bill, however, we are entitled to question what was going on in that council at that time and to ask why she maintained, right up to the end, that the allegations were

"A sensational piece of gutter journalism"—[interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) must hear out the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes).

The hon. Member for Barking said in her speech that agencies are not required by law to carry out checks. Islington council was required to carry out checks, but it did not. That left her successor as leader of Islington council to apologise to the Evening Standard—which revealed what was going on—as he could scarcely do otherwise.

How could that situation in Islington council have been allowed to arise in the first place? When it was exposed, why did the hon. Member for Barking seek to cover it up?

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The motion is very clear, but the hon. Gentleman is not speaking to it.

Order. If the hon. Member for Workington is not prepared to listen to the opposition to the Bill, I shall have to use the Standing Order against him. I will have free speech in the House. The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) introduced the Bill, and we must now hear the opposition to it.

Why this Bill, and why now? Those are the questions prompted by the Bill. Is the Bill, with its fine-sounding ideas, an elaborate smokescreen designed to pre-empt new reports or new allegations? What further revelations are about to ooze out about Islington council?

We know that one victim is about to sue the council and to summon the hon. Member for Barking as a witness. The victim—who is a Labour party member—alleges that a series of earlier reports to Islington council were ignored, and that the council leadership should have known what was happening in its children's homes.

Those are important questions, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) thinks that the matter is funny. The children concerned and their parents do not think that it is funny. Those important questions have never been answered, and the Bill must be seen as a further attempt to obscure rather than to reveal the truth.

We can judge the Bill's real intentions only if we are told what the Islington leadership knew and when it knew it. After all, the first complaints were made in 1985—seven years before abuse was admitted by the leadership. What does the leadership know now, which the rest of us have yet to find out? Once those questions are fully answered, the hon. Lady will have ample opportunity in the future to come back to the House with a serious and properly timed attempt to change the law on short-notice and temporary teachers. Today is not that opportunity.

I know that some Labour Members will not support the hon. Lady in the Division Lobby and I suggest that, before supporting the Bill, all hon. Members question why they are being asked to vote for the Bill at this time and by that hon. Member.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 161, Noes 39.

Division No. 202]

[3.54 pm

AYES

Adams, Mrs IreneHinchliffe, David
Ainger, NickHodge, Margaret
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)Home Robertson, John
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Hoyle, Doug
Barnes, HarryHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Barron, KevinHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Bayley, HughHughes, Simon (Southwark)
Beggs, RoyHutton, John
Beith, Rt Hon A JIllsley, Eric
Bell, StuartIngram, Adam
Betts, CliveJackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Blunkett, DavidJackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Bradley, KeithJamieson, David
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)Janner, Greville
Callaghan, JimJenkins, Brian (SE Staff)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Campbell-Savours, D NJones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Chidgey, DavidJowell, Tessa
Chisholm, MalcolmKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Church, JudithKennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)
Clapham, MichaelKhabra, Piara S
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)Kilfoyle, Peter
Clwyd, Mrs AnnKirkwood, Archy
Coffey, AnnLewis, Terry
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Liddell, Mrs Helen
Corbyn, JeremyLivingstone, Ken
Cox, TomLlwyd, Elfyn
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)Loyden, Eddie
Cunningham, RoseannaMcAllion, John
Dafis, CynogMcFall, John
Dalyell, TamMcKelvey, William
Davidson, IanMackinlay, Andrew
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)McLeish, Henry
Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)MacShane, Denis
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I)Madden, Max
Denham, JohnMahon, Alice
Dewar, DonaldMarek, Dr John
Dixon, DonMartin, Michael J (Springburn)
Donohoe, Brian HMartlew, Eric
Eagle, Ms AngelaMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Eastham, KenMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Evans, John (St Helens N)Morgan, Rhodri
Faulds. AndrewMorley, Elliot
Flynn, PaulMorris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)
Foster, Don (Bath)Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Galbraith, SamMowlam, Marjorie
Gapes, MikeMullin, Chris
Garrett, JohnMurphy, Paul
George, BruceO'Brien, William (Normanton)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnO'Hara, Edward
Godman, Dr Norman AOlner, Bill
Golding, Mrs LlinOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Gordon, MildredPickthall, Colin
Graham, ThomasPike, Peter L
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Pope, Greg
Gunnell, JohnPowell, Sir Ray (Ogmore)
Hall, MikePrentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Hanson, DavidReid, Dr John
Hardy, PeterRobertson, George (Hamilton)
Harman, Ms HarrietRobinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Henderson, DougRoche, Mrs Barbara
Heppell, JohnRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Hill, Keith (Streatham)Ross, William (E Londonderry)

Rowlands, TedThompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Sheerman, BarryTimms, Stephen
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertTipping, Paddy
Simpson, AlanTouhig, Don
Skinner, DennisTurner, Dennis
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)Tyler, Paul
Smyth, The Reverend MartinWalley, Joan
Spearing, NigelWareing, Robert N
Wicks, Malcolm
Spellar, JohnWigley, Dafydd
Steel, Rt Hon Sir DavidWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Steinberg, GerryWilliams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Stevenson, GeorgeWray, Jimmy
Strang, Dr. Gavin
Sutcliffe, Gerry

Tellers for the Ayes:

Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)

Ms Rachel Squire and

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

Mr. Michael Connarty.

NOES

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Key, Robert
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)Martin, David
Brazier, JulianMoate, Sir Roger
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)Neubert, Sir Michael
Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)Nicholls, Patrick
Budgen, NicholasNicholson, David (Taunton)
Colvin, MichaelPawsey, James
Cope, Rt Hon Sir JohnRiddick, Graham
Duncan Smith, IainSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Dunn, BobSpicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Steen, Anthony
Dykes, HughThompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir PeterTownsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Fry, Sir PeterViggers, Peter
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs)Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Whitney, Ray
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir PeterWinterton, Nicholas (Macc'fld)
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)

Tellers for the Noes:

Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey

Mr. David Shaw and

Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine

Mr. Peter Atkinson.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Margaret Hodge, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Ms Tessa Jowell, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. David Jamieson, Mr. Gerry Steinberg, Ms Estelle Morris, Mr. Edward O'Hara, Ms Joan Walley, Ms Ann Coffey, Mr. John Garrett and Ms Janet Anderson.

Protection And Education Of Children

Ms Margaret Hodge accordingly presented a Bill to provide for the regulation of short-notice and temporary teachers: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Tuesday 15 October and to be printed. [Bill 178.]

Opposition Day

[19TH ALLOTTED DAY]

Ministry Of Defence Housing

[ Relevant document: Sixth Report from the Defence Committee on the future of the Married Quarters Estate, House of Commons Paper No. 424 of Session 1995–96.]

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister. I have to limit the speeches of Back Benchers to 10 minutes during the debate.

4.8 pm

I beg to move,

That this House notes that the Government proposes to sell all Ministry of Defence married quarters in England and Wales, including those occupied by service families as well as empty properties, to developers; further notes that this will leave service tenants dependent on a declining number of properties leased back for 25 years; notes that most of the properties can be exchanged by the developer with a neutral arbitrator, rather than the tenants or the Ministry of Defence, deciding whether or not exchanges are permitted; notes that the arbitrator will have to base his decision on set criteria which are vaguely worded, so that developers with expert legal advice will be able progressively to cream off the best estates; notes that steep rises in rents and the downward ratchet on the number of homes leased back, embodied in the proposed scheme, will progressively reduce and break up married quarter estates; notes that, especially at a time of overstretch. and poor recruiting and retention, these estates play a vital role in maintaining the morale of service families and the maintenance of the regimental system; and calls on the Government to dispose of surplus estates, to provide homes for civilian families but, before selling any estate with service tenants, to consult the tenants on the estate, to report to Parliament on the outcome of the consultation and to table an affirmative resolution in both Houses.
Today's debate is the first occasion on which hon. Members have had the opportunity to consider the sale of our armed forces' family homes, something that has caused distress and concern to service families. Government and Opposition Members have voiced their concerns, including 20 Government Members who recognise the damage of the Government's proposals, and what they will do to the morale of the armed forces and to the security of their family homes. As they are honourable men and women, we have every confidence that they will join us in the Lobby tonight.

As the Prime Minister reminded us recently, the sale
"has been under consideration for a number of years".—[Official Report, 25 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 149.]
The Secretary of State's immediate predecessor wasted £5 million on financial advisers in an abortive attempt to sell off the houses. On 28 November 1995, the present Secretary of State announced out of the blue his master plan.

That date is significant, as it was Budget day—which gives the game away. The Government have never seriously attempted to deny the fact that the sale was not concerned with the long-term interests of our service men and women: the scheme was concocted solely to raise finances for the Treasury coffers—which the House will recall is the Secretary of State's old hunting ground.

One question that comes immediately to mind is: why has this scheme succeeded in interesting the financial markets when all the others have failed? The answer is quite simple: this scheme is extremely financially rewarding for them, at the expense of the taxpayer and the service men and women and their families. The deal is breathtaking in its short-termism. The Government hope to raise about £1.5 billion by selling 58,000 forces family homes to a single purchaser—any one of four foreign financial institutions.

The MOD then plans to rent back the houses in order to meet our forces' housing requirements. However, it will retain responsibility for repairs, maintenance and management of the estates. It has guaranteed the purchaser market-based rents on shorthold tenancies and sweeteners far in excess of the money invested. Well within a decade, the speculators will have got back their cash and more, and will also own all defence rnarried quarters and the associated land. The MOD gets to keep all the responsibility and none of the power over how the estate is run—all the bills and none of the proceeds from the estate.

They are the facts as the House and our forces' families know them to be. What devil lurks in the detail of the scheme, which the MOD has consistently refused to disclose to hon. Members or to service families? Instead of allaying the very real concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House and of service families, the MOD's obsessive secrecy has increased them. We know where the details are, but we are not allowed to see the prospectus.

The Government's lack of confidence in the plans is so great that they have refused numerous requests to see the "Married Quarters Estate Information Memorandum". In the past three weeks, representations have been made to me by a number of parties who have a financial stake in the sell-off. As a result of those meetings, I now understand why the scheme is so attractive to them—indeed, it is widely known as the "goldmine of the decade".

Under the terms of the contract as set out in the "Married Quarters Estate Information Memorandum", the MOD will transfer 58,400 houses to the purchaser. Some 2,700 of them—the surplus estate—will be disposed of immediately by the purchaser for a quick profit. The remaining 55,700 houses—the retained estate—will be transferred to the purchaser on 999-year leases, with breaks every 25 years, and rented back by the MOD.

The MOD will have to pay a guaranteed sum to the purchaser in order to rent the properties back. The sum will run into tens of millions of pounds every year; for the first year, the figure will be roughly £112 million. Over 25 years, that annual guaranteed payment alone will amount to many times more than the £1.5 billion to be raised from the sale. Market-rate rent rises will add to the sum to be paid by the MOD, while the purchaser will enjoy the attractive bonus of receiving progressively more empty houses, with which he can do what he chooses.

The key is the 25-year period. Under the terms of the 25-year master agreement, there is a guaranteed release of further units. As well as the 2,700 surplus houses to be sold immediately by the purchaser, the MOD has promised to release further units each year. The first 695 family homes must be released within two years, with a minimum of 2,780 within five years, and a minimum of 13,360 will he released over the 25 years. That represents a quarter of the entire estate as it stands today. I can only assume that such a drastic cut in the size of the estate reflects the Government's plans further to reduce the strength of our armed forces.

The hon. Gentleman will, of course, be aware that the MOD housing estate has been the subject of Public Accounts Committee recommendations for at least 10 years. At no time during that period have there been fewer than 12,000 empty homes, and at times the total has reached 15,000. Can the hon. Gentleman really defend such a state of affairs?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that was the case sone years back, into the Labour Government as well. It has been the most disgraceful and incompetent performance for many years, and the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) seems to want to perpetuate it. I can only tell him that the figures that he is now releasing do not even begin to match the number of homes on the MOD housing estate that have remained vacant for probably a quarter of a century and more.

I cannot accept responsibility for the mismanagement of Army houses over the past 18 years. I must point out that it is possible to sell off the houses without this financial rip-off of a scheme.

No, I must press on. Many hon. Members wish to speak, and I said that I would be as brief as I could.

Let me list one or two of the other benefits gained by the lucky purchaser. An aspect of the sale that has received considerable attention is the site exchange option, which provides the purchaser with the right to require the MOD to hand over properties in exchange for substitute sites. In a desperate attempt to placate service families, the MOD introduced a number of vaguely worded criteria that must be met by the substitute sites, relating to, for instance, travel-to-work time, suitability and standard of dwellings, security considerations and prime rates. Importantly, the criteria do not include access to employment for dependants of service personnel, which concerns service families very much.

That means that there is no guarantee for the families. The MOD has lost control of the transfer. If there is a dispute between the MOD and the purchaser, it will go to an arbitrator who will make the final decision. The military needs of this country will not be the criterion on which that decision is made. That directly contradicts the Prime Minister's assurance, given to the leader of the Labour party:
"It will not mean service personnel being moved against their will."—[Official Report, 25 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 148.]
He was wrong, and we know that he was wrong, because the Minister of State for Defence Procurement told us later that, under the terms of the contract, service families could be moved against their will, but would be forced to do so only if comparable accommodation was offered. What is comparable is a matter for debate.

Service families are used to being moved regularly. They often have to move at least once a year. I recently met a Royal Air Force widow who told me that, during her first years of service, her husband had to move eight times in two-and-a-half years. We all know of people in the military who move at least once a year. They accept that, because they know that they are being moved for military reasons. In future, however, they may be moved at the whim of property developers. The speculators will call the tune, not military demands.

The Government claim that one of the benefits of the scheme will be an influx of £100 million over five years to improve married quarters. That is because, under the proposals—

I stand corrected. On the basis of seven years, the Government's case is even worse.

Under the Government's proposals, the MOD will still have to pick up bills for repairs and maintenance. Last year alone, the MOD spent £126 million on repairs, and £40 million on upgrading the estate.

In a recent parliamentary answer to the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), we learned that, in the past five years for which figures are available, about £198 million was gained from the sale of surplus properties. That is almost twice the amount that will be spent on reinvesting in the estate. It is fair for us to ask the Secretary of State why the moneys from sales were not used to improve the quality of housing of our service men and women. Where has the money gone? If the houses are in such a poor state of repair, what have the Secretary of State and the Government generally been doing for the past 18 years?

For 25 years, the speculators will have a guaranteed income and receipt from sales. There will be a guaranteed cash flow. The principal attraction, however, is that, after 25 years, they will gain control of the married quarters estate. The memorandum to which I have referred gives the MOD the right to retain possession of the remaining houses after 25 years unless the landlord wishes to redevelop the properties.

Late in the day, the MOD realised the shortcomings of the scheme, and introduced what it thought was a cunning scheme, in the form of a ministerial certificate related to the future operational effectiveness of the relevant establishment. Tragically, the so-called ministerial veto is virtually worthless. The legal experts retained by the would-be purchasers believe that the MOD would have the utmost difficulty in making its case in the courts. The ministerial veto is useless. After 25 years, it will be necessary to go cap in hand to the purchasers to retain the married quarters estate for military purposes.

As for intervention by Ministers, I trust that the hon. Gentleman will bear it in mind that, during times of hostility, the Government take special powers and can do almost anything.

There are much easier ways of trying to safeguard and protect our service men and women, and maintain their morale, than starting to wage a war so that the Government of the day can introduce emergency legislation. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who has shown so much interest in defence matters, is prepared to betray the interests of service men and women.

Given the facts that I have laid before the House, it is no wonder that our forces' families are so deeply concerned by the Secretary of State's proposals. Put simply, they feel betrayed and deserted by the Government. The House may not want to take my word for it, but, in a press statement on 30 May, the Royal British Legion declared that Ministers
"have not thought through the long term consequences of the sell-off … in short"—

The hon. Gentleman says, "Of course they have," but the Royal British Legion knows a little bit about this. I suspect that, over the years, it has accumulated information, and this is its opinion. It said:

"in short the proposals pose a threat to the ethos of Service life and demonstrate ignorance of Service people's real needs."
What an indictment. It is small wonder that the Legion went on to demand that the sell-off should be postponed, pending a thorough review.

Some of the most critical public statements against the proposals have come from the Army Families Federation, which declared that it was speaking out
"to make the public aware of what irretrievable damage will be done to Service life if the Government sells off Service homes."
The Defence Select Committee's report came out today. It is an excellent report. It analysed the problems, in the brief time that it had at its disposal, and concluded that, until such time as detailed proposals from the prospective purchasers have been communicated to it and assessed, it will not be in a position to reach a firm conclusion on the merits of the sale. As far as the Committee was concerned, the case was "not proven".

In evidence before the Select Committee, the Army Families Federation said:
"We know the Government was well aware of the concerns not only of the families but of if the three Services themselves, yet it appears to have ignored our warnings of the effect the sale will have on the morale of the Services, on recruitment, on retention and subsequently on the operational effectiveness of our Defence Force."
That strength of feeling cannot be ignored. My office has been inundated—as, I am sure, have the offices of many right hon. and hon. Members—with calls from concerned service families. Such feelings have been widespread. Indeed, they were expressed in a full-page open letter in the Evening Standard under the headline, "Mr. Portillo, you are betraying us", written by the wife of one of the our service men.

I believe that today the whole House should put our armed forces and their families first. It is easy to praise them from these Benches for their dedication and the sacrifice they make for this country. We all do it. But words are cheap. Words are not enough. The armed forces must know that they are valued and treated fairly by the House.

I hope that I have clearly demonstrated that this ill-thought-out plan makes no long-term economic sense, and will cost the British taxpayer severely in the future. It will continue to cause untold uncertainty to our service families, who rightly feel badly betrayed. Sometimes, the House has got to do something. Today is one of those occasions.

4.27 pm

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

'supports the Government in its determination to improve the quality and management of service housing; notes that the proposed sale of the married quarters estate in England and Wales will release £100 million of new funding to upgrade married quarters throughout the United Kingdom, and enable the Ministry of Defence to dispose more efficiently of surplus properties; notes that the sale will have no bearing on the charges service personnel pay for their quarters; recognises that the interests of the services and service families have been properly protected; and accepts the judgment of the Government and the Chiefs of Staff that the sale offers the right basis for real improvements in service housing which are long overdue.'.
Nothing is more important to me than the welfare of our armed forces and their families. The Government must provide proper homes in which our service families can live, and take care of their families. That is not just a matter of bricks and mortar. Families provide each other with support and understanding, and it matters to service families to be secure and to be surrounded by friends.

I take this opportunity to pay a whole-hearted tribute to service families and wives. They do not often receive the public recognition that is their due. In times of turbulence and great activity, still today they keep the home fires burning.

It is vital for the soldier, sailor or airman on active service to know that the family is decently housed and properly looked after. Given Britain's present high levels of military activity, I thank the service wives and families for their patience, courage and stoicism. They are an absolutely integral part of service life.

I want to get a little further.

A number of my hon Friends have expressed concern about our proposal to find a new owner for the married quarters. I am not surprised that it has been Conservatives who have raised the matter as it is the Conservative party that cares about defence and knows the issues that are of interest to service families.

I welcome the attention that the subject has received. It has helped me to improve the scheme that I am proposing. I welcome the representations that we have had from the organisations of service wives and I also welcome the report from the Select Committee on Defence. The matter has aroused anxieties among service families who have had to cope with change and who fear that the proposal might bring more changes. I am pleased to set out today why the policy is a good one and why people should not be anxious.

It is clearly good for morale and for peace of mind if service men and women who are posted are accompanied by their families. Our duty to provide married quarters for their families will continue indefinitely and we will meet the demand for them, where they are needed and when they are needed. But, in future, I propose that the Ministry should do so by renting, not by owning.

The Ministry has not been good at owning houses. In too many cases, their quality has fallen below the standard that service families have a right to expect and, legitimately, service families—like the rest of our community—have rising expectations. We now need to refurbish more homes more quickly. The sale of married quarters will provide the Ministry with an extra £100 million, which it would not otherwise have had, to spend on extra refurbishment. Over five years or so, we shall raise the quality of the houses we occupy to grade one condition.

If we do not proceed with the sale, I cannot imagine how, with all the pressures on public finances, we could hope to complete that programme of improvements. We would condemn a large number of service families to go on living in poor conditions.

The Ministry will do better and service families will benefit by our giving up ownership. Owning so many houses has its cost in that capital—taxpayers' money—is tied up unnecessarily and unproductively. Through the sale, that money can be released for better purposes, including meeting the many other demands for public sector capital investment.

I am surrounded by hon. Members who would like to intervene. I think that the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) was first on his feet.

The Secretary of State said that the money could be released for better purposes. Would he care to enlighten the House as to the specific purposes that he has in mind?

I gave an example straight away, but I think that the hon. Gentleman was on his feet before I had finished the sentence. I referred to other demands for public sector capital investment. This money is not tied up productively at the moment; it can be put to better use. I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill).

My right hon. Friend spoke about the costs of ownership of armed forces' houses, but how far have the Government truly considered the cost of the proposed lease-back scheme? My right hon. Friend will be aware that over the past five years, comparative rents in the private sector have been increasing three times as fast as the cost of living. What will be the impact on the public finances at the five-year intervals when the service rents are ratcheted up to market levels? What guarantee can he offer that any increased cost will not, at the end of the day, be sought by the Treasury from the defence vote rather than being borne by the Treasury, which properly should bear it, given that it will be receiving 15 times as much benefit from this deal as will the armed forces?

My hon. Friend made many points. I do not want to detain the House too long. I do not recognise my hon. Friend's figures for the rise in rents of shorthold tenancies. My figures show that rents have risen by 14 per cent. between 1990 and 1996. My understanding with the Treasury is that the defence budget will not be left worse off through making rental payments. Indeed, we will be better off because the Treasury will meet the rental payments. The Ministry of Defence can give up the hidden costs that I have mentioned and exchange the uncertainties of ownership for a more certain stream of rental payments. What is more, as I have just said, the Ministry will be compensated by the Treasury for the rents paid.

We have been bad owners in another way. We have a large number of empty houses, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) referred. Today, there are 12,000 of them in England and Wales alone. We have to pay to secure and maintain those houses out of the defence budget, and we are rightly criticised for not releasing houses in which civilian families could live.

It has not been for want of trying to sell them. Some of them are difficult to sell, so they remain on our hands, empty and expensive. Once there is a new owner, the Ministry can release surplus properties to him. Instead of having to search for a buyer ourselves, we will just need to give six months notice of leaving a site. From that moment, the property becomes the new owner's responsibility and the defence budget is relieved of the cost.

The MOD alone will determine what houses will be given up—not the new owner, not anyone else—and it will be our clear policy to release them in discrete groups that do not break up the integrity of the service patch. There is absolutely no right for the new owner to cherry-pick or infill. We will be able to improve in that respect on recent experience. I recognise that, in some instances, the pressure on service housing managers to sell surplus property may have led them to release the most sellable houses, even if it risked breaching the integrity of the patch. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) has made that point to me. In future, we will be free to release only the properties that we do not need and are not central to a service community. There will be no more mixing of civilian families among service homes. Communities will be kept intact to maintain the security and mutual support of the patch.

On how many occasions in recent years have the Opposition decided to use one of their Supply days or half a Supply day to discuss bad management of MOD housing? On the medium and long-term siting of service and married quarters, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the arrangements will not prevent the moving of service quarters to parts of the country that are less under pressure from civil housing developments and that the geographical arrangements are not absolutely set in concrete?

We will require the houses where the Ministry of Defence needs to do its work. We will need houses where our people have to be. Those locations may well change—certainly over 25 years and even more so over 200 years. The arrangements give us the flexibility to acquire houses where we need them and to give up easily houses where we no longer need them. It seems much more sensible to achieve that by renting than by owning. I do not recall any occasion on which the Opposition used their Supply days for the purpose to which my hon. Friend referred.

I assure the Minister that I have asked many questions about the management of RAF housing. He may be confident about the arrangements, but if a service man is on an unaccompanied tour in, for example, the Falklands islands, and receives a letter from home saying that the family home is in question because it is one of those that may be exchanged as part of the development deal, the kind of picture that the Minister wanted to portray earlier of giving service men confidence will not be that portrayed at all. Service men overseas will be extremely worried when the news comes to them.

As the right hon. Gentleman may be able to imagine, I shall come to that issue later, and I shall address his point then.

This is a short debate and I am therefore under pressure, but I realise that hon. Members want me to give way.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State appears to have said something very significant and reassuring, will he give us an assurance on the integrity of the site that there will be no question of purchasers being able to put their tenants in a military area? As he is well aware, many of us are very concerned about the integrity of service areas. Will he further give an indication about the security of houses in military establishments? Will they be treated differently? They are terribly important matters. The Secretary of State has raised a significant point. It would be reassuring for it to be included in the contract.

My hon. Friend can be entirely reassured. The new owner would have absolutely no right to put civilian tenants into military communities. As I said a moment ago, the properties that we give up are entirely a matter for the Ministry of Defence. They have nothing whatever to do with the new owner. The change affects the title to the properties. It does not affect their maintenance, security or any other aspect. I shall explain the special arrangements for the 11,000 properties that are behind the wire. Apart from that, we have no intention of giving up our responsibilities, nor do the civilian police have any intention of giving up their responsibility for security in married quarters simply because the title to the houses may have changed hands.

I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but the House will recognise that I am constrained by time.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the freehold of those properties is better off in the hands of professional property managers whose sole business is looking after property and who understand it, rather than in the hands of the Ministry of Defence, and that the resulting standard should be very much higher? He mentioned the £100 million to be spent on improving the properties. Will he ensure that the work is carried out by professional people rather than by the Ministry of Defence? Perhaps he should consult the new owners to make sure that we achieve good value for that £100 million.

Most of the improvements to our housing are carried out by private contractors. That has always been the case. No doubt it will continue in future. We have not done well in maintenance in the past. We now have a new organisation in charge of maintenance—the Defence Housing Executive. I shall explain the improvements that we have made in that respect.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has been attempting to intervene, but then I must make substantial progress.

The Secretary of State has told the House about the ease of disposal of MOD properties either to the single buyer or afterwards—if the purchaser wishes to dispose of them. Has every property that he has mentioned—all 58,000 plus—been cleared through the Crichel Down regulations? Many of them must be covered by those regulations. He is well aware of the problems at Trecwn, just outside my constituency, where properties that were declared surplus at the beginning of 1994 still have not been disposed of because of the Crichel Down regulations. Will he assure the House that each property that he says can be easily disposed of can be sold?

I have engaged excellent legal advisers. I am not aware of any problem in that respect and I have great confidence in the Government's title to all the properties that are being disposed of.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) has made an interesting point. Although I heard what the Secretary of State said, may I ask him to assure the House that the principles that guided the Crichel Down ruling will apply to the freehold sale of the land currently held by the MOD which is involved in the memorandum? Will the Government adhere to those principles?

Ministers are anxious to explain every point. I shall ensure that that point is covered fully by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement in his reply to the debate.

The Ministry will be the tenant of the new owner and a most exceptional one at that. The Government will retain responsibility for the maintenance of the homes. We shall be renting more than 50,000 properties and we are the most reliable tenant in the country. That enables us to rent at a discount of more than 50 per cent., guaranteed for the first 25 years. At the end of that period, the rents will be renegotiated, taking account of the size of our lettings, our responsibility for the maintenance and our reliability as a tenant. I cannot imagine that any other tenant will be as attractive to the owner and I have no doubt that we shall again be able to secure an excellent deal.

As the Select Committee said, we shall need to do better on maintenance. The chief of the Defence Housing Executive is a professional in housing management and he will expect his staff too to obtain the proper qualifications. As now, those who occupy the houses will pay their accommodation charges to the Ministry, not to the new owner. What they pay will be set by the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body as it is now. The review body will take no account of the rent paid by the MOD to the owner.

Service families will continue to enjoy a subsidy that will push their rents well below market levels. That subsidy is deserved because service families move house frequently—each time they are posted. They do not have the choices or the rights enjoyed by civilian tenants, such as security of tenure or the right to buy. Although the pay review body recently increased rents, it increased pay by much more so as to leave service men clearly better off overall.

In respect of a corporal, for example, rents were raised by £22 a month between April 1995 and December 1996 and pay rose by £66 a month. The occupiers of married quarters will have no dealings with the new owner. They will see few differences from the sale except the better programme of home improvements.

There are two special features to the sale regarding site exchange and redevelopment which have raised concerns. I shall set out the safeguards and propose some changes. Neither proposal applies to service homes behind the wire, and that cuts out 11,000 houses straight away.

Provided that whoever buys the houses initially keeps them and does not sell them on, the owner may propose exchanging the houses that we rent from him for a new site. If so, what he offers must be comparable or better. There are detailed contractual safeguards to ensure that.

We make that comparison by reference to five broad categories backed up by 21 detailed criteria. That ensures that we shall consider a broad range of factors: the distance between the houses and the military facility, the distance to leisure facilities, schools and churches and, of course, the quality of the houses—right down to room sizes.

On comparability, my right hon. Friend will know that a large number of service families accept the need for additional expenditure to improve the properties. In respect of the exchange of properties—for example, if an estate is closed down and sold off—will there be a total guarantee of comparability so that service men and their families are not moved into houses that are inferior in any way to those that will have been improved out of the £100 million that my right hon. Friend mentioned?

Comparability will apply to houses as they are at the time of the proposed exchange. It will be measured by reference to the five broad criteria and the 21 more specific criteria that I set out just a moment ago. In response to suggestions from my hon. Friends, I have already added an extra provision that job opportunities for families should also be taken into account.

That list of criteria makes it unlikely that many such exchanges will occur. It is a demanding list, it is tightly drawn up and it is binding. If for any reason, however, we cannot agree with the owner about whether our criteria are met, arbitration—based on the rules that we have set—provides a quick and inexpensive way to resolve the issue.

The second special feature allows the owner to propose, after 25 years, that a whole site should be returned to him for redevelopment. At that stage—who knows—that may be the best option from our point of view. The houses will be 25 years older than they are now. The armed forces may no longer wish to be in that location and it may be best to obtain new accommodation.

If, however, we need those houses for operational reasons, we have the power to veto redevelopment. The Secretary of State of the day can rule it out by issuing a certificate. That is the ultimate safeguard. I simply do not recognise the legal advice quoted by the Opposition spokesman as I think it has no basis in fact.

At paragraph 49 of its report, the Select Committee drew attention to the concern of service families that a site exchange might involve a change of school for their children which could affect children who might be in the middle of a GCSE course, for example. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that, in considering the scheme, he has at the forefront of his mind the quality of education for service families?

May I ask the Secretary of State about arbitration on comparability? If there is arbitration, it will take place only because there is no agreement between the parties. Even if the criteria on which the arbiter is to make his decision are those laid down by the Ministry of Defence, it is at least possible that he will find against the Ministry, in which case any guarantee offered will be only as strong as the Ministry's case at arbitration.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is being rather petty. We have a clear contract. The criteria are clear, numerous and specific, and have been drawn up by very good lawyers. There are contractual obligations. Nevertheless, of course it is possible that we may have a dispute. If we do, either we can take it to law, with all the expense and unpleasantness that that involves, or we can have the simpler system of appointing an arbiter. I believe that the second is the simpler and better way.

The hon. and learned Gentleman must recognise that over any contract there may be a dispute; no one can guarantee that that will not happen. So what we want is a good way of resolving such disputes. [Interruption.] I seem to have carried the hon. and learned Gentleman with me, and I am pleased about that.

My right hon. Friend has said that the houses will be of comparable or better quality, that schools and employment factors will be taken into account, and that an exchange would not require people to travel greater distances. Will he reassure the House that distance will be measured in terms of travelling time to and from the establishment to which the houses are linked?

While my right hon. Friend is answering that question, will he also assure the House that if an exchange were made, the estate given up would not be fragmented into a number of much smaller units?

There is no question of fragmentation. We would measure distance according to how long it took people to arrive at their destination—that is, the military establishment where they work.

I want to press on to the end of my speech now, because if I do not it will be an abuse of the time of the House.

As I said, I have valued the suggestions that I have received for improvements. I have already acted on a number, some of which were important to the chiefs of staff and some of which were made to me through Members of Parliament. Today I want to act on three more.

The first two relate to the option for site exchange—the proposal that we might swap one site for another. The Army Families Federation has asked us to include among the criteria for comparing one site with another not only the closeness of schools to the new site but the quality of the schools near the site. Education is of huge importance to parents, and I shall happily add that criterion to the list.

Secondly, there have been calls for consultation with those who might have to move. Such moves will be rare. And of course, moves to new accommodation in mid-posting already occur today, as we improve our use of the houses that we own. Moreover, it must be recognised that an exchange may take a long time to organise, and many families may have moved on anyway between the time of the proposal and the time of the change.

None the less, all that having been said, it is certainly reasonable to ask the occupiers of the day their views on how the two estates compare, judged by the criteria. I undertake that we shall consult them. We shall wish to accept a new site only if it is as good as what we have, or better—and we shall check our view with the views of the service people who have been living on the original site.

The consultation cannot be a veto, but it can be effective because it will be taken into account by the Government in reaching their view on how the estates compare. In the event of an arbitration, the occupiers' views will be given to the arbitrator and he will have to weigh them as a factor that he is obliged to consider. That is an important change. I have made it because I believe that it meets a point in the minds of several of my hon. Friends, and because it can be done without cutting across the chain of command.

The third change is this. If after 25 years we receive any proposal to redevelop a whole site, we shall stipulate that the Government must be given a minimum of four years' notice, as well as two years' free rent, so that we can be sure to have the alternative houses ready in good time.

My right hon. Friend will know that I am not a soft touch. Despite approaches and persuasions, I have not yet removed my name from the early-day motion. But will my right hon. Friend accept it from me that, having been in close personal touch with him and with my hon. Friends the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, and having had several meetings, I fully accept the new proposals and I am happy to support the Government?

My hon. Friend's happiness is as nothing compared with my own. I told my hon. Friends that I would listen carefully to what was proposed. M y hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) made a specific proposal, and I was happy to accommodate that; it was the second proposal that I announced today.

May I also thank my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, for having listened carefully to representations made by my hon. Friends and myself and, most importantly of all, to representations made by representatives of the service families.

There is no doubt that the three additional measures that my right hon. Friend has just announced change the balance of the whole package considerably. I think that there was an implicit assurance in what he has just said, but will he give an explicit assurance that when the Government consider proposals for site exchanges, they will interpret and take account of the results of the consultation exercise in accordance with the criteria that he set out at the beginning of his speech—that is, that the Government's first priority in the matter is to ensure that the reasonable interests of service families are defended, and that the Conservative party will always take its stand on that subject?

Yes, indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I assure him that every word of my speech has been considered, and that all the words should be taken together.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the Army and the Royal Air Force have consultative bodies—the Army Families Federation and the Association of RAF Wives—to represent them when matters concerning families arise. Will he give sympathetic consideration to setting up a naval services families association, or something similar?

I have certainly benefited greatly from my contacts with the Army Families Federation and with the Association of RAF Wives. I have not come across any organisation representing Royal Navy wives. 'There is none, on a national basis, but if there were one I. should happily meet its representatives. Whether such an organisation should be set up is not properly a question for me, but I should certainly be happy to recognise and deal with one if it came into existence.

No, I think I must finish now, because otherwise I shall have taken too long.

We have devised a scheme that brings benefit to—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is the Minister not displaying grave discourtesy to the House by giving way only to his hon. Friends?

Mr. Deputy Speaker
(Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)