Helping pub landlords to stay open, and battling changes to the NHS

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24 Nov 2014
It’s head above the parapet – hopefully, not on a pike – time. Unfashionable in the current climate it may be, but I want to raise two cheers, at least, for Parliament in the last week.

Two votes showed there’s life in the old dog yet, where the government – and its whips – didn’t just get its own way and backbenchers demonstrated they were well in tune with their constituents.

Last Tuesday, the House voted to end the age-old ‘beer tie’, which forces hard-pressed landlords to buy drink at above market prices from huge pub companies.

One of them, Punch Taverns, wrecked my local, the Gresley Arms in Alsagers Bank. A succession of poor tenants, on a treadmill of targets to feed a company overloaded with debt, depressed village life for five whole years, until the former landlords finally bought the pub back and made it a roaring success again.

Last Tuesday, Parliament called time on the voracious PubCos, with rebels from all parties handing the coalition its first defeat on a whipped vote this Parliament.

Sadly, I could not be there, as I was doing my bit in the forlorn by-election in rainy Rochester & Strood. But, assured the numbers were enough this time, I certainly will be if the government tries to overturn the vote in the House of Lords and it comes to the Commons again - as I was last Friday, for my colleague Clive Efford’s Private Members Bill, which seeks to undo pointless damage inflicted on our NHS.

The Bills are a strange breed. Rarely, if opposed, do they become law, but with persistence they can.

In 2006, my Agency Workers Bill sought to end exploitation of temporary staff by levelling the playing field on pay and working conditions. All those years ago, it addressed the job insecurities that are part and parcel of concerns about immigration and the rise of UKIP now. The Bill itself was talked out, but we got the law through before 2010.

The issue, sadly, has not gone away, but we’re keeping up the pressure – and over ‘zero hours contracts’ and a decent ‘living wage’, because for ordinary working people these are subjects of vital concern. Likewise, Friday’s NHS (Amended Powers and Duties) Bill sets a marker down for future change, too.

Before the last election, David Cameron vowed there would be no further ‘top-down re-organisation’ of the NHS, but started one anyway. As well as needlessly reshuffling all the different NHS bodies, the disastrous 2012 Health and Social Care Act forced compulsive tendering of all NHS contracts, including to the private sector.

As my colleague Tristram Hunt wrote last week, as a result here in Staffordshire we’re now the biggest guinea pig of all. It is the new Clinical Commissioning Groups, and largely unaccountable NHS England, which are controversially putting a £1.2 billion cancer care contract up for auction.

Clive’s Bill would stop all this. It would restore co-operation, not competition as a guiding light for the NHS. Thankfully, it passed the first stage of its Commons journey on Friday, and not just with the Labour votes of myself and Tristram, Joan Walley and Rob Flello from Stoke.

Bravely, Jeremy Lefroy, Stafford’s Conservative MP, also joined us. He has witnessed first hand, namely, how the competition imperative impeded the collaboration needed to sort out Stafford hospital. In all this, it’s not just principles, but the practical effects on constituents, which count.

At the election, the government promised to ‘protect the NHS’. But it’s had to absorb all sorts of pressures, including savage social services cuts. 

The replacement of NHS Direct by the new 111 service has been a disaster. Nurse training places have also been cut, forcing the hospital to look increasingly overseas and to expensive agencies. One truly shocking statistic is that locally 40% of GP places now are not permanently filled – no wonder waiting times for appointments are soaring.

As a result, A&E is overwhelmed and the new Royal Stoke University hospital is struggling with a £30m deficit, while it absorbs Stafford hospital, too. Any measures, like removal of the cancer contract, which undermine its finances, therefore, are bad news for families in North Staffordshire.

That’s why we voted as we did on Friday, to stand up for our constituents. MPs not in touch? – Don’t you believe it.