In the House... 1997-8
Speeches and parliamentary questions in the House of Commons, 1997-8
European Structural Funds - 22/10/98
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I shall be very parochial in my speech tonight--and I make no apologies for that. As chairman of the northern group of Labour Members of Parliament, I speak on behalf of the north-east as well as my constituency. I stress the immense value of structural funds to that region. Those funds have been worth more than £1,000 million to the north-east since 1989 and have created tens of thousands of jobs. At more than £100 million per annum, they are worth more than the proposed budget of the regional development agency. The funds have assisted areas suffering major economic and social hardship and the dislocation of the local work force, and rural areas suffering from a combination of sparse population and a continued dependence on agriculture.
The funds have secured enormous achievements for the north-east. Structural funds have allowed the region to cope with massive structural change and have been a huge boost to the north-east's economic, social and environmental regeneration. They have encouraged considerable private investment. The funds have raised regional competitiveness and have been used effectively and imaginatively. The north-east has been cited by the Commission as one of the best performers in applying and directing resources.
All that is under threat, as the European Commission is recommending the reform of structural funds and a reduction by up to a third in the population level that they cover. Special support to the coalfields and to specific sectors, such as textiles, steel and shipbuilding, will be scrapped. I stress that the north-east needs continued assistance. The task of restructuring the economy is not yet complete and the north-east continues to face severe social and economic problems of a deep-rooted structural nature.
First, per capita gross domestic product in the north-east is the lowest of any region in the country. Secondly, the north-east has the highest unemployment claimant count of any English region. More than one in three unemployed people have been unemployed for more than 12 months. Real unemployment--that is, joblessness--is more than twice as high as the claimant count. Thirdly, average weekly wages in the north-east are the lowest of any English region. The north-east has the lowest disposable household income in the whole of the United Kingdom. Some 37 per cent. of those in work earn less than the Council of Europe's decency threshold--that is the highest rate in the United Kingdom.
Fourthly, business start-up and survival rates are among the lowest in the United Kingdom. Economic activity rates for both men and women are the lowest in England and the second lowest in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, recent large-scale job losses have exacerbated the problem and highlighted the fragility of the region's economy. I assure the House that that is not a price worth paying.
Although structural funds have cushioned the region from further decline, its relative competitiveness has slipped as other regions have improved their economic performance. A reduction in structural funds would hinder the process of restructuring. It would constitute a major setback in rebuilding confidence and the diversity and strength of the region's economy. Such a reduction would cause a rapid decline in competitiveness and widen the gap between the region and other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe.
The north-east needs the maximum level of financial assistance. Parts of the region--notably the former coalfield and rural areas--have a gross domestic product of less than 75 per cent. of the EU average, which is the selection criterion for objective 1 funding. Northumberland and Durham have not been included as a level 2 region in the agreement reached between the Office for National Statistics and Eurostat. The designation of Northumberland and Durham as a level 2 region would have given us a good chance of obtaining objective 1 status, which would bring up to £150 million in European grants to the area.
The decisions on the revision of level 2 area status are supposedly based purely on statistical arguments rather than political decisions. However, on close examination, that does not appear to be the case. Eurostat has accepted some changes to the level 2 lists. They are in Cornwall, west Wales, London and Scotland.
Before anyone gets up in arms, let me make it clear that it is absolutely not my intention to argue that those areas should not have redesignation--far from it. I agree with the Council of Ministers and the European Commission that decisions should be taken as close to the people as possible. My argument is that there appears to be a double standard in that some areas are accepted while others are rejected.
Let me take Cornwall as an example. If there is supposed to be a statistical adherence to size basis, why should Cornwall, with a population of just 400,000, become a level 2 area?
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): The figure is 480,000. Let us get this absolutely clear. Let us be honest and say that Cornwall is a cultural region in its own right.
Mr. Steinberg: I was coming to that. As I said at the beginning of my speech I am not arguing against Cornwall's redesignation. I am simply making a comparison, and I am entitled to do that. If one area gets level 2 status and another does not, there must be a reason. I want to find out what that reason is. I do not begrudge Cornwall getting redesignation. I am delighted, so my hon. Friend should not get herself in a twist.
Cornwall has been allowed to split off from Devon because of a
"recognition of the very different economic conditions of the counties and Cornwall's sparsity of population, geographic peripherality and distinct cultural and historical factors reflecting a Celtic background."That was a quote from Eurostat.
As Cornwall is a county, on the general rationale it should be a level 3 area and, as such, be eligible for objective 2 rather than objective 1. The specific points allowed by Eurostat in accepting the case for level 2 designation include the "different economic conditions" between Devon and Cornwall, which in gross domestic product terms is 15 per cent. The discrepancy in GDP terms between Northumberland and Tyne and Wear is also 15 per cent. Therefore, economic conditions are just as different between Northumberland and Tyne and Wear as they are between Devon and Cornwall.
It is also worth pointing out that Cornwall is part of the south-west region, which has an overall GDP of 95 per cent. of the EU average while the northern region has only 85 per cent. of the EU average. We are a poor part of a poor region, whereas Cornwall is a poor part of a much richer region.
Cornwall's population sparsity is specifically referred to as part of the rationale for accepting level 2 review. However, in Northumberland and Durham, sparsity is worse, at 123 people per sq. km compared with 136 people per sq. km in Cornwall. Emphasis is placed on Cornwall's geographical peripherality. Penzance, at the extreme western tip of Cornwall is 282 miles from London while Berwick in the north of Northumberland is further away at 357 miles from London.
I now turn to the
"distinct cultural and historic factors reflecting Celtic background".How can that possibly be a statistical argument? On that basis, Northumberland should have objective 1 status because we were not conquered by the Romans.
In view of that, what exactly is the rationale for accepting Cornwall for review, but not Northumberland and Durham? I ask that question quite seriously. If anything, the statistical case for Cornwall is rather less robust than that for Northumberland and Durham, reinforcing our view that the decision was political, not statistical.
The north-east is one of the most structurally challenged areas and that is why it needs structural funds. The UK Government have finally recognised coalfield areas as a priority. Now is not the time to disallow access to what will be the last major chance of structural funds going to the UK to help those areas. Europe grew out of the coal and steel community. The coalfields have to be understood in the context of permanent, steep long-term decline. The insistence of Eurostat on ignoring the United Kingdom position and rescheduling those areas as level 2 means that they must now compete as objective 2 regions, although their success is by no means certain. In fact, they are objective 1 regions trying to get objective 2 funding. The designation of objective 1 status should be the subject of open debate by the EU and member states, along with the principles of subsidiarity, transparency, fairness and social justice. The matter should not be cut and dried, with Eurostat overruling member states by the utilisation of a subjective formula.
The Commission has proposed that objective 2 eligibility should be based predominantly on employment and unemployment statistics. Industrial decline in the north-east has been long-term and sustained. Some areas have lost so many industrial jobs that they may not continue to qualify as industrial areas.
In selecting eligible objective 2 areas, the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission must use additional indicators of deprivation and exclusion that are meaningful. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that additional selection criteria for objective 2 status should include some of the following factors.
First, per capita GDP should be recognised by the EC as the single most important factor in determining whether a region lags behind the rest of Europe. Parts of the north-east contain some of the lowest GDP in the United Kingdom, and the region as a whole has the lowest GDP of any region. Secondly, the skills level of the work force is fundamental to their ability to compete effectively. The narrow skills base in the north-east is a direct consequence of traditional structural reliance on heavy industry and agriculture. Thirdly, the north-east suffers from endemic deep-rooted unemployment. Official unemployment statistics underplay the problem of joblessness and the related issue of social exclusion. Fourthly, rural areas continue to suffer acute problems in terms of overdependence on a narrow and inflexible economic base, changing economic structures, remoteness and scarcity of population. Finally, aid should be concentrated on areas suffering structural problems. Allowing small areas with cyclical problems to qualify would reduce the impact of structural funds and fail to recognise real need.
At a European level, the UK Government are seeking a fair distribution of structural funds across member states. Distribution within the United Kingdom should also be on a fair basis, recognising real indicators of need. The economy in the north-east is struggling with huge job losses continuing to occur in manufacturing. The region is still undergoing a major restructuring process. The continuation of structural funds is vital to stabilise the future economy and boost job prospects in the north-east of England.
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It is every worker's right to belong to a trade union. Trade unions were hounded and vilified by the previous Government. We had 18 years of constant, hysterical attacks, and we heard this afternoon from the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) that the Conservatives' attitude to trade unions has not changed.
In May last year, the Labour party won the election, and the manifesto on which all Labour Members fought that election was clear, certainly to me. The manifesto stated:
"People should be free to join or not to join a trade union. Where they do decide to join and where a majority of the relevant work force vote in a ballot for the union to represent them, the union should be recognised."
Regardless of the huge majority that we won, the Confederation of British Industry, in its arrogance, remains opposed to the principle of recognition. I am well aware of why the Opposition called this debate today, but it seems that not many Conservatives are interested in attending.
It is right that the Government now keep their manifesto commitment on union recognition, which is the cornerstone of protection for workers in employment. There must be no compromises. Why? First, it is a basic civil right for people at work to be represented by a union if they so choose. Union recognition is simply the right to be heard. Secondly, there are many cases of exploitation in employment across Britain, with many examples in my own northern region. I appreciate that many companies treat their staff very well, and some treat them reasonably well, but there are shocking examples of exploitation which have been highlighted by the Trades Union Congress's bad bosses' hotline which my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) mentioned.
Thirdly, most workers, given the opportunity, would choose to be represented by a union. A TUC-commissioned national opinion poll revealed that 77 per cent. of people make this choice. In such circumstances, employers should be required by law to negotiate with a trade union. I sincerely hope that the rumours are untrue that the Government are backtracking on their commitments after intensive lobbying by the CBI which has expounded one myth after another.
Myth number one is that unions hold back business. As we have heard this afternoon, most of Britain's top companies recognise unions; 44 of the top 50 FTSE companies recognise unions; 42 of the 45 companies that employ more than 25,000 workers recognise unions; Britain's biggest employer is also the most heavily unionised of the large supermarket traders.
Myth number two from the CBI is that negotiations should be left to voluntary arrangements. Unions prefer to negotiate with employers on a voluntary basis, but why should the management veto the democratic rights of a work force? The introduction of a law will encourage the voluntary resolution of recognition claims. Other laws already require employers to consult and deal with their work force on various issues, most notably on health and safety. That rarely causes a problem.
Myth number three is that union recognition will encourage more industrial action and strikes. That is not true. If an employer refuses to deal with or recognise a union, the only remedy open to the work force is industrial action. A statutory procedure will make it more likely that such disputes can be resolved without industrial action.
I do not have enough time to go into every detail of the CBI's attempts to frustrate trade union recognition, but I shall concentrate on a few of the worst examples.
Mr. Bercow: Go on. Go for it.
Mr. Steinberg: I do not want any comments from the hon. Gentleman, who has a big mouth and should learn to keep it shut occasionally.
The CBI wants abstentions in a recognition ballot to count as votes against. It argues that a majority of those eligible to vote, not of those who cast a vote, must be achieved. The CBI opposed proposals for that requirement in strike ballots, but that is not surprising. There is no justification for having different rules for trade union recognition ballots from those that apply to other ballots, including the election of Members of Parliament. A simple majority of 50 per cent. plus one of those who vote should lead to automatic recognition. Requiring a majority of those entitled to vote would be a recipe for industrial unrest.
If the principle that the CBI is in favour of had applied to the recent general election, a large majority of Labour Ministers and Back Benchers would not have been elected. On 1 May, I received 31,102 votes. My nearest rival, the Conservative candidate, got 8,598 votes. My majority was 22,504.
Mr. Bercow: That was in spite of you.
Mr. Steinberg: I have told the hon. Gentleman what I think of him.
The electorate of the City of Durham was 69,417. I would not have been elected under the CBI's destructive proposals. It is a fair bet that no Conservative Members would have been elected either. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who has obviously done some research, substantiated that this afternoon, so I think that I would win my bet. However, looking at some Conservative Members, I am beginning to change my mind. Perhaps it would not be such a bad idea to have that system in the House of Commons.
The proposal is nonsense. A ballot cannot be conducted in that way. Requiring a majority of those entitled to vote would be a recipe for industrial unrest. Workers will accept the result of a fairly conducted ballot under well-understood principles. The CBI's proposals would rig the outcome in advance. They cannot be accepted.
Those on the Labour Front Bench were scathing about the idea when we were in opposition. In November 1996, my right hon. Friend who is now the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said:
"What justification has the right hon. Gentleman for the changes he proposes to make in the balloting rules and procedures to deny people a simple majority? Is it not a fact that, on 1 November, on the Radio 4 'Today' programme, he said that he had got the proposal from his local golf club rules? Frankly, that is an insult to everyone engaged in industrial relations."--[Official Report, 19 November 1996; Vol. 285, c. 846.]
That argument promoted by the Opposition Front Bench in 1996 when a Tory Government were in office is equally valid today with a Labour Government in office.
Another area of disagreement is the CBI's insistence on a minimum threshold under which small businesses would be exempt from recognition procedures. Half of Britain's work force is employed in enterprises with fewer than 100 employees. The CBI wants to disfranchise 50 per cent. of this country's work force, excluding them from the protection of legislation on recognition. That is unacceptable.
The last threat to trade union recognition that I want to mention is the definition of the bargaining unit. That is crucial to the operation of a statutory recognition procedure. The CBI wants the employer to have the sole right to define the extent or limitation of the bargaining unit. That would enable an employer to exclude particular sections of the work force--for example, by separating white collar from blue collar workers--or to define the bargaining unit as the whole company when a trade union is seeking recognition for a specific section. Unscrupulous employers would change the definition to suit their circumstances. The union should have an equal right to define the group of workers that it seeks to represent. If that cannot be resolved by negotiation or conciliation, an independent representation agency should rule. The employer should have no veto.
Our approach to fairness at work is underpinned by three fundamental principles. Access to justice should not depend on the number of people employed at a workplace or the type of work that is undertaken. It should also not depend on hours of work or length of service. The principles should apply to all employees at all workplaces.
The first principle is the right to representation. Everyone at work should have a basic right to representation in their dealings with their employer. That is a democratic right for every citizen, which should be enshrined in legislation.
The second principle is the right to recognition for collective bargaining purposes. Trade union recognition should be automatic when a majority is in favour. If the issue has to go to ballot, those voting should demonstrate the majority. There should be no exceptions to the collective bargaining agenda. Trade unions and employers should be free to discuss and negotiate on the whole range of issues that apply to the work force. Trade unions and employers must be involved in a partnership to raise the training and skill levels of the work force.
The third principle is the right to consultation. All workers must have the right to be consulted on matters that affect their working lives, including pay, working conditions and their future job security. If the CBI's gerrymandering is accepted, the law will be so weak that it will no longer be in line with the manifesto on which I fought the general election. There must be no compromise.
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Mr. Kilfoyle: The Government are committed to attracting a broad range of applicants for public appointments by the use of advertising and by encouraging members of under-represented groups to nominate themselves for the central and departmental lists of candidates.
Mr. Steinberg: Does my hon. Friend agree that the previous Government staffed quangos with Tory party members or supporters? For example, in my constituency not one Tory candidate has been elected to any public body, whether to a county council, district council or parish council, yet the quangos contain an unrepresentative number of Tories. Will he ensure that in future there is a social and political mix on quangos so that people in my area can feel confident that they are being properly represented?
Mr. Kilfoyle: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that the Government intend to ensure that appointments are made on the basis of merit, reflecting the skills that are needed and the interests of all stakeholders in our society, rather than on the basis of a partial approach to those appointments.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Dr. Kim Howells): I can give my hon. Friend that guarantee. He opposes tuition fees, but presumably he does not support the present arrangement, nor the ones that led to it, whereby a young person from a family in one of the two lowest socio-economic groups has a two in 10 chance of a university education while someone from a professional or managerial family has a seven or eight in 10 chance. That cannot be right, and that is why we are making the changes.
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Mr. Blunkett: I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. We have a task together over the years
ahead to ensure that we pick up the positive recommendations in the early part of the Dearing
committee report, which indicate that we should examine--we shall do so over the summer and
autumn, and report back to the House--how we can target resources for institutions that are paying
specific attention to groups that have been excluded, including those in geographic areas that are
massively under-represented. We must also look at the necessary action to be taken within schools
and colleges to raise the expectations of those young people and their families.
I want to make it clear that this is not solely about what is now a minority of students who enter higher education at 18 or 19; it is also about encouraging mature students to come back into lifelong learning. We must pay attention to that, if we are not to write off generations that lost the opportunity which we were glad to accept.
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Education (Schools) Bill
As I have already said, if the hon. Lady would listen, that statement was made in the
Select Committee, when Mr. Woodhead was personally able to answer the criticisms
of him that I and others made. Read my lips: read the report. It is a pity that you did
not read it when you were in government; you would not have made as many
mistakes as you did over the past 18 years..
I apologise to the hon. Lady the shadow Under-Secretary of State, or whatever her
present title is. I did not see her trying to intervene, or I should have given way. She
has only to read the Select Committee report of its meeting with Mr. Woodhead in the
last Parliament. I would have assumed that, as a Minister, she would have read the
report. Obviously, she did not, which is very naughty of her..
Private schools perpetuate class distinction, which the scheme intensifies by robbing
state education of vital resources. For 18 years, the Tories brought gimmick after
gimmick into education without ever taking constructive steps to improve standards.
The assisted places scheme was one such gimmick. It was meant to con the public
into believing that it would help working-class children to receive a private
I have expressed some reservations about the measure, but I assure the House that I
have no reservations about getting rid of the assisted places scheme. It is a state
subsidy to schools that caters for people who are rich enough to pay for private
education, if they are foolish enough to want to do so. We will not be able to achieve
the classless society that we all talk about until we get rid of private schools
The hon. Gentleman knows my opinion: no list should have been published in the first
place. That is a genuine disagreement between me and my Front-Bench colleagues,
and I am sure that we will resolve it over the years. As usual, we have heard some
silly statements from the previous Government. At least I am allowed to make a
speech on my views; I never heard Tory Members doing that from this side of the
House. They always said what they were told to say by their Whips. The Whips are
not telling me what to say. I shall say exactly what I want..
The hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be based on local education authorities'
need for extra money to cater for pupils leaving the assisted places scheme. He must
be able to tell us how many children are to be catered for, because his argument
depends on that. How many children, on average, will each local education authority
have to cater for?.
If the right hon. Lady is so concerned about private schools not taking in working-class children, does she think that private schools will offer free places to working-class children out of their own budgets to allow for that cross-section of society in those schools?.
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Mr. Steinberg: I shall be brief, as many hon. Members want to speak. I understand the frustration of many Members and others who want the cane to be reintroduced. Since I left the teaching profession 10 years ago, the situation in the classroom has got worse and worse. Many schools and teachers are having a difficult time.
Often I, too, think it is a damn good idea to give certain children a good hiding, but ultimately it does not work. The children who are chastised are the ones who keep coming back for it, time and again. Moreover, if a teacher gave a child a good hiding, the child's parent is likely to come into the school and give the teacher a good hiding. That must not be overlooked.
It is all right to conduct research and ask parents whether they want their children to be flogged. I suspect that, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) probably found out, the vast majority of parents want corporal punishment to be brought back, but they want it to be brought back for someone else's kid, not their own kids. As soon as a teacher touches their kids, there is hell on and they come to the school to see the head teacher.
Let me tell the House about my experience. I was a teacher for 20 years and a head teacher for 10 years. I have experienced both being flogged and flogging. I remember, at the age of 12, being off with the flu and coming back to school to find that a piece of homework had been set by the art teacher. As I was terrified of the art teacher, a man called Mr. Lynn, I attempted to do the art homework, which was on perspective. I handed it in and got flogged because it was not correct. I have always remembered that. Eventually, I got my own back on the gentleman. Several years later, when I applied for a deputy headship at a certain school and he applied for the same job, I got it and he did not.
As a head teacher, I used the cane, for about three years. The system in the school was that if, at the end of the day, a teacher felt that a particular child was causing so much disruption that the teacher felt unable to cope, the child was sent to my office. I had to decide whether to use the cane on the child. To back the teacher up, nine times out of 10 I had to cane the child in cold blood. The child would be brought into the office and told to put his hand out, and I would hit him with the cane.
As the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) said, when one uses the cane, one does not intend to tickle the child: one intends to hurt him, otherwise there is no point. On many occasions, one missed the child's hand and got him across the wrist, and immediately one could see the blood come. I did that on several occasions. Officially, I was allowed to do it. I entered the child's name in the punishment book and he would go away.
Amazingly, the children who were caned were always the same ones. I began to think that was ridiculous. There was a lad called Simpson--I remember him now--who used to come backwards and forwards. Every week he was in front of me and I was thumping hell out of him. He would go away, and two days later he would be back again. In the end, I remember him telling me to "eff off" and rushing out the door. I chased him, grabbed him by the neck, brought him back and whopped him again. Two days later, Simpson was back for another one.
The entire exercise was pointless and a waste of time. I was caning the same kids over and over again, with absolutely no effect. After three years, I said, "Enough is enough. This is ridiculous. It is getting me nowhere, it is getting the kids nowhere, and it is not improving discipline in the school." I adopted a completely different approach. If one rewards children, they respond. They respond to kindness and to being well looked after. They do not respond to a bloody good hiding.
The new clause is too stupid for words. I believe that the vast majority of teachers do not want caning brought back into schools. It is ridiculous to say that they do. Teachers have their own ways of dealing with disciplinary problems. It is about time we put more resources into our schools and considered other methods, rather than bringing back the archaic approach of trying to thump kids into submission.
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Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I want to discuss two topics that have resulted from the NHS reforms; and to be very parochial. The first is the new district hospital for Durham; the second is the shortage of hospital beds in Durham.
The project for the new hospital was promised more than 20 years ago. The old area health authority and the North-West Durham health authority had had the lowest capital expenditure in the whole northern region. In the early 1990s, therefore, it was agreed to build a new district general hospital. In February 1992, when the choosing of a site for the new hospital was proving difficult, the then chairman of the North regional health authority, Peter Carr, wrote to me as follows:
"You can be assured that the new hospital will be constructed. The capital funds have been set aside and the Durham project is top of our priority list."Five years later, we still have no new district general hospital, and I am not confident that we will ever get it.
Since then, the Government have refused to build any new hospital buildings out of public sector funds and have turned to their so-called private finance initiative, which is a complete and utter failure. At the moment, the PFI is nothing but a con trick--a promise of new hospitals which just do not happen.
In 1994, the Minister for Health told me that, since the launch of the PFI in 1992, the NHS had been encouraged to exploit the benefits of collaboration with the private sector. He continued by saying that, increasingly, the private sector is bringing in its innovation, dynamism and experience to the NHS, to improve services and get better value for money. Perhaps the same Minister tonight will tell me where there has been a successful PFI incorporating these conditions: it is certainly not in Durham. I am led to believe that there is not one in the whole country either. Indeed, the Library told me this morning that no building work had started on any scheme, and that there was no date set for any to start.
I was originally told that the preferred bidder and the business case would be finalised by the end of 1994; yet today, at the beginning of 1997, we have not even reached that stage. Is that an example of the success of the private finance initiative?
In 1996, the trust told me that the full business case had been prepared, and that--in conjunction with County Durham health authority--the preferred option would be forwarded to the Treasury for final approval. We are still waiting. The trust continues to claim that this is quicker and more efficient than building in the public sector; and the trust continues to tell us that the hospital will be completed quicker than it could have been by the public sector. What a load of hogwash.
The cost of the PFI process so far has been well over £1 million; this cost has been incurred just by the procedure, nothing else. Meanwhile, the trust's financial position has worsened. More than 50 beds have been closed; theatre sessions have been reduced; targets have been set; and there are limits for certain operations. The trust was told that it had to save £2 million during the current financial year. Those measures are a direct result of financial pressures, but they are also in line with the trust's long-term strategy for the new district general hospital in Durham.
In 1996-97, there is a £2 million loss of revenue. In 1997-98, a further £2 million loss is projected. For 1998-99, another £1 million loss is projected. Even with all these savings, there is still no guarantee of a new hospital being built. An interim rationalisation plan continues in place--the running down of services in the sister hospital at Shotley Bridge, and the transfer of services to Dryburn in Durham.
The situation in October was so grave that I received a letter from the consultant dermatologist, Mr. Ive, and signed by another eight senior consultants at the hospital. It concerned the acute crisis in medical services in north Durham. He said:
"There is a great danger of a collapse of general medicine, including cardiology and heart attacks in North Durham, as a result of a halt being called to a process of site rationalisation, whereby Shotley bridge was going to gradually decant into Dryburn. The situation has gone so far that we are now unable to recruit junior staff to Shotley Bridge beyond February and the Post Graduate Dean would certainly not allow junior staff to work there beyond that time."What a dreadful situation for the health service in Durham to be in.
I do not blame the hospital trust or Durham County health authority, although both could have acted slightly differently at times. The fault clearly lies with the Government, and with the health reforms that have created this appalling mess. I blame privatisation and the breaking up of the health service.
As for building the new district general hospital, things go from bad to worse. Last September, the director of technical and leisure services for Durham city council contacted me by letter. He informed me that senior members and officers of the council had met representatives of the North Durham Acute Hospitals trust, the health authority and representatives of Consort Healthcare, which is the PFI partner of the authority. He wrote:
"It is apparent that for the hospital to be built and fitted out, the PFI partners wish to raise finances by the utilisation of surplus land on the Dryburn site for a retail development. Senior members are concerned that the City Council will be faced with the proposal for inappropriate development to finance a funding gap to provide a much needed district general hospital. They feel that the citizens of Durham should not be required to make such a choice, nor would they be able to recommend that they do so."In effect, it was being requested that a supermarket be built in the hospital grounds in one of the most sensitive parts of Durham--a suggestion both stupid and unreasonable. I immediately made my position clear on this issue, and said that I would not support such a supermarket development on the hospital site and would not be prepared to have the council or myself blackmailed into accepting the retail development, even if it meant losing the new district general hospital.
The trust was adamant that it was blackmailing no one, but was simply requesting that the land be built on to make extra money to help fit the hospital out. However, the presentation which the hospital trust gave the local authority made it clear that there was an attempt to influence the council's decision on whether to grant planning permission on the basis that the hospital would not be built. It said:
"Funding issues: funding shortfall exists. Not possible to realise full extent of service provision. More existing buildings retained and new buildings left as a shell until cash available. Disposal of surplus land necessary. Complete scheme relies on maximum return on surplus land. Food retail development is only solution for surplus land to bridge the gap."It is clear that, unless the trust obtained planning permission to build a retail development, our district general hospital was threatened. That is what the PFI means--no new facilities unless the private sector can make a killing.
I shall now deal with the lack of beds in the hospital. In 1995, prior to the cost improvement measures taken in the hospital, there were 670 beds. At one stage before that, there were 900 beds. There are now 580 beds. The original outline business case, which was approved in December 1994, gave the PFI bid a figure of 565 beds. We are now told that the trust has undertaken a fundamental review of bed numbers and the number of beds in the new PFI bid has been cut to 454.
The trust tells us that that is all that is necessary. I neither accept nor believe that. The drastic cut in the number of beds has taken place simply because of the amount of cash available under the PFI bid. If we ever get a hospital, it will not have enough beds. How on earth can a new hospital with 454 beds cope when the present hospital with 580 beds cannot cope?
Morale is so low among consultants in the hospital that many are thinking of leaving. When I discussed the matter with a consultant, he said: "There is a smell of decline." What are we coming to when a consultant says that there is a smell of decline in a hospital? The interim rationalisation programme has made virtually no savings, and straight cuts will have to be made over the next three years. Cuts totalling some £8.6 million--15 per cent. of the budget--are now forecast. That is even higher than originally thought.
If the PFI bid cannot produce more than 450 beds, it is not worthy, and should be looked at again. The brand new state-of-the-art hospital that has been described, with 450 beds, will be unable to cope.
Although I have been receiving complaints from my constituents over the past year or so about the lack of beds, in the space of a week, I have been contacted on two separate occasions about the lack of beds in the hospital.
On one occasion, Mrs. Budd, a constituent of mine, had been on a waiting list for a serious operation. She was twice given a date and, on both occasions--once in October and once in November last year--her operation was cancelled and no further date was offered to her. She was informed that her operation had been cancelled because, although the consultant could do the operation, no intensive care bed was available for her after the operation.
I was told this morning that last week she was given another date. Guess what happened--the operation was cancelled again. It is a sad state of affairs when a consultant cannot proceed with an operation because he cannot be sure that an intensive care bed will be available once the patient has had the operation.
A further appalling case was brought to my attention at the beginning of January. Mr. Taylor, an 84-year-old from my constituency, was admitted to hospital for treatment, but, unfortunately, no beds were available. Eventually, he was found a bed, but he tragically died some days later. The coroner was so concerned about this case that in court he advised the man's family to contact their Member of Parliament, because, he said, the case was so serious. The hospital is currently investigating the case.
The twist in the tail is that the chief executive of the trust, Mr. Brian Waite, the most vociferous supporter of the PFI bid, has done a runner. I am told that he has gone to a job with neither promotion prospects nor a wage increase. He has gone to Carlisle. Who would go to Carlisle when he could stay in Durham? I should have thought that Mr. Waite would have wanted to wait for the PFI bid to be completed and see his dream come to fruition. Perhaps he thought that, by the time that happened, he would have retired and might need a bed in a geriatric unit in Durham, which would not be available because all the beds would have been closed. That is probably why he has gone.
Mr. Waite's departure sums up the exact position: had he believed that the PFI would give us a new hospital, he would have waited to see it come to fruition. The fact that he has left tells us clearly what he felt was happening with regard to the future of the bid.
The private finance initiative is a farce, as are the national health service reforms. I suspect that the case in Durham is not unique, and, in the meantime, my constituents wait for a new district general hospital and have a steadily deteriorating service.
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