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6.29 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): A hundred years ago, the Health Visitors Association was created. Its headquarters is in Southwark street, just over the bridge in my constituency. It is competent at observing and reporting on the state of public health, particularly in urban Britain. Before any Government

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introduce a Budget and establish their priorities, they must consider which social ills need to be cured, which social needs need to be met, and how much the balance between tax and spend can achieve that.

The director of the Health Visitors Association has observed that social conditions in Britain are now returning to those of the previous century. She said:

My constituency reflects that growing divide in Britain. We have affluent second and third homes along the river and rundown council and other estates elsewhere, with many people in poor-quality private accommodation. Some people have done very well--some of Thatcher's children have done very nicely, thank you--but, with a few exceptions, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened and social equity has therefore been reduced.

Budgets must be judged not just by how they bring about the basis for general economic recovery, but by how fairly they distribute the profits and benefits of that recovery for the community as a whole, and how much everybody stands to gain. A good test of that is whether we can adequately fund one of the great equalisers in our society--the national health service--and put it on a secure and firm footing for future generations.

I do not intend this to be a canter-round-the-course debate about the health service, because we have adequate opportunity to do that, but there can be no disputing the fact that the health service is patchy. Every week, the King's Fund, an objective reporter on health matters, publishes Health News, in which it reviews the week's health news. Ten days ago, it reported stories that had appeared in the space of a week with headlines as varied as these: "Hospital calls halt for operations not paid for by fundholders"--that was the famous Norfolk and Norwich hospital, which we heard about in last week's Budget statement; "Fears over pill safety lead to 3,000 more abortions"; "Parents sue after baby's death in 'dirty ward'"; "Air pollution soars above danger levels"; "Hospital drug error may have damaged baby's brain"; "Aids virus on the increase in cities"; and "Hospitals warn of worst funds crisis for years".

Towards the end of that section of the publication, there is a report by the annual British social attitudes survey, which came out a few days ago. As the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) implied in his speech, it showed that most of the public would be prepared to pay higher taxes to improve the NHS.

Mr. Nicholls: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes: I shall give way just once.

Mr. Nicholls: The hon. Gentleman may recall spending part of his summer holiday coming down to my constituency--without doing me the usual courtesy of telling me that he was coming--and terrifying people in Dawlish by saying that their hospital--[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman thinks that this is funny, but he terrified frail and vulnerable people in Dawlish by telling them that the private finance initiative would never deliver their hospital. Had he picked up the telephone or written to me, I could have told him that a decision--probably favourable--was expected by October or November. That

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happened in the end, so the hon. Gentleman should get rid of his smirking veneer of sincerity towards frail and vulnerable people within the national health service and take this opportunity to apologise to some of my people for the gross deception that he practised upon them.

Mr. Hughes: First, I am sure that they are not the hon. Gentleman's people any more than they are anybody else's. Secondly, I informed myself on the basis of information from the Department of Health, which I regard as more reliable than the hon. Gentleman. Thirdly, it was "the hon. Gentleman's people", including the chair of the Friends of the Hospital--

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West): Chairman.

Mr. Hughes: As it happens, it was a man. The chair of the Friends of the Hospital expressed concern that, like so many PFI projects, that project had been continuously delayed.

Mr. Duncan: It was not delayed.

Mr. Hughes: It had been delayed. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) knew no more about it when it was to be announced than anybody else.

Mr. Nicholls rose--

Mr. Hughes: I shall not give way again. The hon. Gentleman knows that I was given my information by the Department of Health--[Interruption.]

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The word "dishonest" was just used by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls). That word should not be used under the rules of the House.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): I heard the word but did not think that it was a reference to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) personally. Will the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) clarify that?

Mr. Nicholls: I meant that the intellectual exercise that leads to performances of that sort--disobeying Madam Speaker's recommendation to tell Members of Parliament when one intends to intervene in their constituencies--is dishonest. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is an honourable Member and he, personally, is not dishonest.

Mr. Hughes: The people of Dawlish believe what they see and at last they have some good news about the rebuilding of their long-awaited and delayed local district general hospital in that small town. I am glad about that, but there is no question but that everybody was becoming so frustrated by the PFI process and by the Government that the whole exercise will have done the hon. Gentleman and his party no favours.

People are still concerned about the problems in the health service, which have led to a report in today's The Daily Telegraph that John Radcliffe hospital, Oxford

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provides a two-tier service: patients of fundholding GPs are told that they can have their operations, and patients of non-fundholding GPs are told that

    "no non-urgent cardiac surgery will be conducted during December".

We still have a long way to go before we provide fair and adequate resources for our health service. In a moment, I shall suggest what we should have done in addition to what the Government have done. I also wish to comment on other parts of the Budget.

I share with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) the concern that we shall worsen poverty and bad health if we keep cutting the housing budget. Many people--about 30 per cent. of the population--still live in rented accommodation or are waiting for decent accommodation. Every year that we cut back the housing budget, we build up a legacy of repairs and poorer health. People will suffer greatly because of the changes to housing benefit that have been announced. When we discussed the Housing Bill in 1988, the Government said that all increased rents would be met by housing benefit. We knew that that would not be true then and it is proving not to be true now.

As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey), my parliamentary neighbour, argued in this place a couple of weeks ago, other groups in society are not being looked after adequately. Asylum seekers are allowed to be here while their appeals are heard, but they now find that many of them will not be funded at all. Neither are they allowed to work, even they are willing to do so.

Although it has been doing so well, London Transport, which is important not just for London but for the functioning of the capital city and therefore of the economy as a whole, has had its budget considerably reduced. London Transport has a huge amount of work that it wants to do; it simply wants the controls over how it can borrow and invest lifted. Had that been done, and had London Transport been given decent investment, it could have gone ahead with the renewal of the capital city that we all want.

Unlike the Labour party, my colleagues and I have set out our alternative Budget and costed it. We have said that one of the prerequisites is to take significant numbers of people out of poverty by removing 700,000 people from the taxpaying group and paying for that by introducing a higher rate of income tax of 50 per cent. on higher earners. We have set out a programme of proposals that would maximise the number of people in employment: the more people in employment, the fewer who would be dependent on social security. That must be a national priority.

Mr. Tim Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes: I will not give way, only because other hon. Members want to speak.

We have set out, as the Secretary of State acknowledges, a commitment to the health service--as have the Government--to a considerably greater extent than the Labour party. I was tempted to intervene a second time during the introductory speech by the Secretary of State, when he was teasing the Labour party, rightly, about when, if ever, we shall get a Labour health policy. I gather that tomorrow at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre there will be an opportunity for people to tell the

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Labour party what its policy should be, as it clearly has not decided yet. If the Secretary of State and I have some spare time, perhaps we could go along and offer our suggestions. It is a disgrace that the party of Nye Bevan and of the foundation of the health service is willing to commit so little.

The health service must be funded at least to keep pace with inflation--not just national inflation, but inflation in the NHS--and to make up for underfunding in the past. Tomorrow night my colleagues and I shall vote against the cut in income tax, as we did last year, because we believe that the Government cannot con the public that they can both cut taxes and increase investment adequately in the public services. Neither the Government nor the Labour party are convincing when they try to argue that. Presumably, Labour Members will again refuse to join us in the Lobby, and will support the Government or sit on their hands. If that is the case, all I can say to Labour Members is that their argument that they will adequately fund the health service, as well as the education and housing services, falls flat--on the last occasion before the general election when they have the opportunity to put their votes where their words and public commitments are.

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