I warmly welcome various aspects of the Gracious Speech, but I intend to concentrate on social security and health.
The Gracious Speech heralds a constructive legislative programme, containing measures that will be important to many people. It is a pity that the absence of ideas in the Labour party should present such a stark contrast. I could not help noticing that on seven occasions the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) failed to provide answers to what were, after all, very direct questions.
The success of the programme that has been announced will depend on the Government continuing their policies for a sound economy. Only through those policies can the programme be financed. They have resulted in the lowering of inflation, a steady fall in unemployment levels and—in succeeding months—the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Efforts to promote enterprise and improve economic performance must therefore remain at the heart of Government policy.
The Government must build on the work that they have done already to reduce the budget deficit, even at the expense of short-term popularity. I hope that the forthcoming Budget to be delivered by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer will reflect that.
As the honorary president of Frome Mencap, I welcome the Government's decision to introduce a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people. I have always believed that this task should be undertaken by Government, especially in view of the costs involved, and not left to a private Member's Bill. I wish legislation had been introduced earlier, but I am delighted to see it now.
We must not overlook the fact that the Government approach this subject with a considerable record of support for disabled people. Spending on benefits for the long-term sick and disabled has increased by more than 200 per cent. since 1978–79, rising to the present level of £17 billion. The new legislation must help disabled people in their struggle to achieve independence and secure even greater recognition of the successful contribution that disabled people make to life in the community.
I visit many community activities for disabled people in my constituency, and I never fail to be impressed by the dedication and achievements of the participants and by the carers who help disabled people so much. If I have a plea this evening it is that we do not forget the carers; that we do not forget to care for the carers. After all, respite makes a better carer. By encouraging and helping carers to look after disabled people, we ensure that they are able to do a better job.
Attitudes to disabled people have changed beyond all recognition over the past 30 years. That is reflected by the speeches that are made again and again on both sides of the House. I pay tribute to those members of the all-party group on disablement—the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) and all the others, including Lord Ashley from the other place—who have done so much to raise the level of recognition of, and interest and concern for, disabled people.
That is why I believe that, when it is enacted, the importance of the legislation will be recognised. I am sure that it will work effectively. However, we must remember that we cannot achieve everything at once. It is by working hard, effectively and consistently for disabled people that we have secured vast achievements over past years. Fifteen years ago, people would not have believed that we could have come as far as we have today. That is not to say that we have gone as far as we can; we have not. We have much work to do and there is great enthusiasm in the community to undertake that work.
I visited the Bath and West show in my constituency this summer, where I attended a disabled persons games. This was not a special activity, heralded with special fanfare; it was a normal and natural activity which has gone on for a number of years. That is the way in which I believe that disabled persons want to carry out their activities: they do not want them to be seen as something special, or something to be gawked at, but as natural a part of community life as a hospital open day or whatever.
I now turn to the issue of unemployment or, more importantly, the need to get people back into employment. Many people come to my advice centres to complain about the inflexibility of the benefits system. People often say that they have sons or daughters who want to get back into employment but who are finding it extremely difficult. That is why I welcome the job seeker's allowance initiative.
It is very difficult to enact change in the benefits system, because whenever an attempt is made some pressure group will scream that it will disadvantage X or Y. It does not matter which party enacts the legislation, that is the automatic reaction—particularly as the negative points tend to be highlighted in the media whilst the positive ones are left, rather conveniently, to one side. It is only at a later date when one sees that the legislation is working and that people are benefiting from it that the press realise the success of the measures which the Government have already undertaken. I see the job seeker's allowance as building on such success by introducing the concept of incentive, which is what the back-to-work bonus will be all about.
I endorse wholeheartedly the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) in recounting experiences from his constituency. Not only is the national health service working well currently, but it is improving all the time. The Labour party does not like to acknowledge that fact for obvious political reasons, but it is borne out by monthly published statistics.
The long hospital waiting lists are reducing, and we need to see that. When I was first elected as the Member for Somerton and Frome in 1992, there was a long-running campaign for 24 hour ambulance cover. I was astonished that there was no such cover in Frome when it should have been provided. So I went straight to the Wessex regional health authority and I would not take no for an answer. Within nine months, that necessary service was implemented and since that time I have received no further complaints about ambulance cover. That is a good local example of an improvement in the national health service.
Similarly, there were almost outraged demands for a comprehensive breast-screening service in the Frome area. Those involved in the campaign seemed to assume almost automatically that the Government would not make this service available. Equally speedily, the problem was resolved—another local example of improvement in the national health service.
I have seen great improvements in the quality of health care provided. I pay tribute to the local hospital trusts, which operate from Yeovil, Taunton and Bath, for the work that they have done to secure that improvement. Waiting lists in my constituency have come down substantially and the number of complaints in my mail bag is also coming down.
I meet people all the time who have returned from some sort of hospital treatment. They often express surprise at the quality of treatment that they have received. When I ask why they are surprised, they say that it is because of all the negative reporting about the national health service that they have seen in the newspapers. They say also that it is because of the negative comments that they hear from the House of Commons. Those comments come not from Conservative Members but from Labour Members. The Liberal Democrats are not free of blame on that score.
The most vociferous complaints about the NHS often come from people who have not been near a hospital for 10 years, and base their views simply on what they have read in the newspapers. I will not talk for London or Birmingham, but we often hear about the problems facing people in rural communities.
My constituency is wide-ranging and covers many rural communities. The people living in those communities are being extremely well-served and well looked after by the NHS. If they do complain, those complaints are taken up and dealt with extremely swiftly and the problems are sorted out. It is a sad fact that nine tenths of those problems are due to bureaucratic mismanagement, which, once it is looked at by senior managers, can be sorted out quickly and easily.
The improvements that have been brought about by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's insistence on supporting and developing the hospital trust concept and the success of many of the fundholding practices has brought about a need to refine and reduce administrative structures. That is why I am glad that a Bill will be introduced to abolish the eight regional health authorities. I would not say that it is overdue, but the time has now come. The regional offices that will replace them will employ just over 1,000 people, compared with nearly 4,000 managers and their support staff employed in the 14 regions two years ago. Time and again, constituents come to me to complain about excess management in the NHS. We are tackling that problem.
We can never do away with management, particularly in a service that is complex and which has strongly entrenched professional organisations. However, we can improve that management. We can streamline it and ensure that it works effectively. By breaking management down to individual hospitals through the hospital trust system, we have managed to bring about a far better performance and, with it, thank goodness, substantial reductions in waiting times.
John Yeats has done a great deal of research into this subject, and he has said time and again that it is the time that people have to wait that matters, not necessarily the numbers waiting. People are prepared to wait a reasonable time for non-urgent surgery. People should not have to wait at all for urgent surgery. I am sometimes disappointed when I find constituents who are being treated as non-urgent even though their condition has worsened but their general practitioner has not reported that change to the local hospital. Once it is reported, treatment is effected quickly.
There is a great deal to encourage me in the Queen's Speech. I should like to mention briefly the reform of agricultural tenancy law.