Diary of a Commons Man: Sir Alan Beith MP

THE Government has had to recognise that there is a lot of concern about NHS reorganisation.

It was a big issue at the Liberal Democrat conference and, like all MPs, I am getting a large number of emails, mostly in identical words, from worried constituents.

Before the Bill makes any further progress, Ministers have accepted that they will have to do more listening, more explaining and more amending of the Bill.

The first thing to make clear is that this Bill does absolutely nothing which would undermine the right of everyone to receive NHS treatment free of charge.

Secondly we need to cut bureaucracy in the NHS to free up money for new treatments and for an older population.

The arguments are about who makes the decisions on what services are provided and who might provide them. The Government’s plan is that local doctors – GPs – should group together to make these decisions.

At present they are made by unelected Primary Care Trusts. I would be surprised if you know who is on your primary care trust but you will know who is your GP!

Another part of the plan is that elected local councillors should have a bigger role in monitoring what these groups of GPs do and in public health.

The third, and probably most controversial feature of the Bill concerns the role of private hospitals and services in treating NHS patients.

This was strongly developed by the Labour government who opened up private treatment centres and gave private hospitals more money than NHS hospitals to provide the same treatment. The Government has stopped that, but intends that ‘any qualified provider’ should be able to offer services to the NHS.

Some people are completely opposed to anything other than state-run hospitals being available to NHS patients while others are worried that the private sector will ‘cherry pick’ the easier work.

But GP practices themselves are private businesses, providing a service to everyone under the terms of their contracts with the NHS.

So are many dentists. And many NHS patients on long waiting lists have had their operations because they were sent by the NHS to private hospitals.

Most of the emails I am getting express general concern but do not say whether the senders are for or against doctors taking over the decisions on NHS services which are currently made by Primary Care Trusts.

They do not express a view on whether councils should have a bigger role in the health service and, although they express a fear about the role of the private sector, they do not say whether private or other non-state providers should be excluded from treating patients under the NHS.

I would welcome views on these key points and a survey can be found on my website at www.alanbeith.org.uk or if constituents would like to write to me at the Constituency Office in Alnwick.

The bill clearly needs amending to address public concerns, but the NHS cannot stand still and could achieve more if we can cut wasteful bureaucracy, use all available skills and involve patients and the community in constant pressure for improvement.

PENSIONS are becoming a big issue. People are living much longer and as a result most pension schemes, including the state pension scheme, cannot continue on present contribution rates and present retirement ages.

This is a particularly difficult issue in some public services where people have traditionally retired early because of the demands of the job – the police, for example.

There will be intense parliamentary discussion of the proposals put forward by former Labour minister John Hutton, who was appointed by the Coalition government to put forward ideas to deal with the funding of some public sector pensions.

In the meantime, the Government has been trying to improve the basic state pensions.

For some, including some women, this has involved seeing their future retirement date put back farther than they expected.

But the good news is the so-called triple-lock.

The Government has restored the link between pensions and average earnings.

More than that, the state pension will always rise by the higher of three things – average earnings, prices or two-and-a-half per cent.

So there will be no more derisory pension increases measured in pence. For the average pensioners retiring today, that is a gain over their retirement averaging £15,000.

In the longer term, the Government wants to get rid of the confusing and expensive reliance on means-tested benefits.

In particular, it wants people to save for retirement without feeling that their savings will count against them in retirement – that saving makes them no better off.

They also want a system that is fairer to women who have spent years of their lives caring for children or elderly relatives, and fairer to the self-employed. Pensions Minister and Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb has put forward a Green Paper with two options.

The one he clearly prefers is for a single contributory state pension, which, in present day terms, would be set at £140 per week.

Less than half of women in their 40s would get that from the present state pension when they retire.

You would not have to fill in forms or apply for means-tested benefits to get this pension – it would be yours by right so long as you had paid or been credited for contributions over thirty years. It would not be affected by your savings.

It will take time to bring in such a system and it would run side-by-side with the present system for existing pensioners, but it seems the sensible way forward.

ALTHOUGH lots of constituents write to me about issues in this country, I get more letters than you might think about international affairs and Britain’s role in the world.

One of the present issues is arms sales. Britain sells a lot of arms and military equipment around the world – it is a major exporting industry, and without exports it would be unable to supply the needs of our own forces.

There is a licensing system designed to make sure that we do not sell arms to countries who are going to use them against us, or to regimes who will use them to repress their own people, like Gaddafi or Mugabe.

A committee of MPs oversees this licensing system and it has just reported that it supports the Government in applying the rules more strictly to authoritarian regimes but concludes that ‘both the present Government and its predecessor misjudged the risk that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in north Africa and the Middle East might be used for internal repression.’

They also wanted more action to prevent arms exports to developing countries which were spending too much on military hardware and too little on tackling poor health and poverty. And they wanted tougher action to deal with bribery and corruption in the arms trade.

It is a report that will need following up in Commons debates and questions and it tackles issues which worry many of my constituents.