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Mr. Simon Hughes: We could spend the entire debate discussing which issues ought to be non-political. No one has ever argued that the health service should not be political. What is the Minister's objection to removing the accumulation and presentation of statistics on the health service from under the hand of Government, so that they would be believed--as they are not at the moment?

Mr. Malone: It is a disgraceful allegation for the hon. Gentleman to cast aspersions on civil servants who prepare statistics.

Mr. Hughes: Who are they?

Mr. Malone: The hon. Gentleman asks who they are. I hope that everyone who works in the public interest preparing those statistics--and that public interest goes well beyond the Government--will have heard the hon. Gentleman's derision. I shall explain in some detail how we have introduced open government in the health service, and the statistics support the evidence that we bring of its success.

I would take the nonsense that the hon. Gentleman talks about removing the health service from politics slightly better if he used the existing statistics fairly. The description that best befits the Liberal Democrats is that they use statistics in the same way as a drunk uses a lamp-post--for support, not illumination. It is frankly absurd for the hon. Gentleman suddenly to say that if there were a national body, his party would suddenly accept the statistics that it provided, when it does not accept any of the statistics from the organisations that currently provide them to the Government--often at arm's length.

The Liberal Democrat party delighted in counting the people who came off dentists' registers. When I pointed out that the Liberal Democrats did not count people who went back on the registers--as they are rolling registers--they failed to respond. In the face of the evidence, they produced a league table of people ditching dentists.

The Liberal Democrats also twist the statistics that relate to their own spending commitments. We heard a rather good example of that at the beginning of the debate. At the Liberal Democrat party conference last September, the hon. Gentleman claimed to have found a national insurance tax loophole that would provide, as always, a painless £350 million. However, in the Liberal Democrats' self-styled Richmond Park Mail, one of the exciting documents that flutters through letter boxes in a number of constituencies, the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate scaled that down by £100 million. What is the hon. Gentleman's commitment?

Last month, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party promised £500 million for the national health service. He said that £175 million would come from additional

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increases in the price of cigarettes, but that left a £325 million hole--another unexplained statistic from the Liberal Democrats.

Effectively, the Liberal Democrats have said that they would make every family worse off by an average of £12.50 a month, by adding a penny on income tax. Their health promise would double that. As a result, every family would pay an extra £300 every year with no increase in the care provided. Today the hon. Gentleman is committing his party to spending yet another £180 million or £190 million, although he has no funding plans to back that up. His position is absolutely unsupportable.

Mr. Simon Hughes: That is the most extraordinary allegation, given that we obtained the figures--and we have costed them all--from answers that we were wise enough to get from the Government only last week. In the past 10 days, we have obtained Government figures in respect of eye tests, dental checks and closing the national insurance loophole. They are all costed and our commitment remains the same--£550 million a year in addition to keeping up with real NHS inflation.

Mr. Malone: In every election since I have been a boy in politics, the hon. Gentleman and his party have said that they have a wonderfully costed, tested manifesto commitment that will fly and bear all scrutiny. The truth is that none of them ever does, because they are based on false premises throughout. The hon. Gentleman can wave his piece of paper and send it across the Chamber. I shall have a look at it and be delighted to write to him in due course, picking it apart, as we have always been able to do with every Liberal Democrat commitment that has ever been made inside or outside the House. The House is not impressed, and the Government are certainly not impressed.

Mr. Gallie: A point that comes to mind from serving on Select Committees and listening to debates in the Chamber is that I repeatedly hear Opposition Members demand statistics. Is it not so that, the more statistics we gather, the more bureaucracy is required to gather them and the greater the cost imposed on the health service or any other service, yet Opposition Members complain about administrative costs? Is there not a degree of--I should not use the word "hypocrisy". I shall try to think of another--but I cannot.

Mr. Malone: I am sure that my hon. Friend's thesaurus will reach him before the debate goes on much longer. He is right. In my two-plus years in office, I have not noticed that the Department of Health is entirely a statistics-free zone. In fairness to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, he was saying something else: the statistics were unreliable. They are unreliable simply because he chooses not to accept them.

I come now to Government accountability and shall address the Government's record of increasing it. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey may not recollect that--I concede to him--Gladstone formed the Public Accounts Committee and created the post of Comptroller and Auditor General in 1861. Gladstone the hon. Gentleman is not. The national commission that he is proposing would in no way be as powerful or as enduring as both those important offices.

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In considering the Government's service, and especially the NHS, we should also remember the National Audit Office, the Audit Commission and, in terms of accountability to the House, the Select Committee on Health. I should point out that the Government established the Audit Commission in 1982. It is far more important to have a commission that looks with some practised insight into what the statistics mean and at the performance of the service rather than one that simply collects statistics that can be published eventually in some unread book that does not serve the service.

The fact that raw statistics, useless in themselves, should not be collected because that is a burden on the health service, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) rightly pointed out, underlines the Government's approach. We are encouraged by the Opposition parties always to try to get rid of forms wherever possible, so it is right that we should not burden the service with collecting unnecessary statistics.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey would do better to follow the example of the Audit Commission. In 1990, we extended its role to the NHS and it was given powers in 1992 to require performance indicators from local authorities. Insight offered by organisations such as the Audit Commission not only into the gathering of statistics but into the way in which the service works is far more important than anything that the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford): My hon. Friend and I have had many discussions on the status of rural dispensaries and priorities in the NHS in ensuring that, consistent with good Conservative principles of competition, pharmacies on one hand and rural dispensaries in doctors' surgeries on the other do not have an undue advantage over one another. In his role as Minister for Health, my hon. Friend has been immensely successful in applying himself to the question. Will he ensure that we stick to Conservative principles so that my constituents in Madeley and Gnosall can have an assurance, either today or as soon as possible thereafter, that the matter will be resolved, difficult as many people find it?

Mr. Malone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have turned round and noticed that he has not been with us throughout the debate, but arrived breathless in the Chamber to make his point. Although his question is not closely related to what I am talking about now, I had not intended to deal with it in the substance of my remarks, so I shall answer it right away.

The answer, of course, is that there must be a compromise between professions that have found it rather difficult to agree on those issues over time. I believe that there is an opportunity to resolve several of the immediate issues that my hon. Friend raised, which will be taken forward by both professions in the coming weeks. I hope that we shall be able to make some progress and build a better atmosphere between the two professions. I acknowledge my hon. Friend's interest in that subject.

Back to boring statistics. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey made much of the idea that, if we set up a great organisation, we could remove the

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question of statistics from politics. For support in my response, I turn to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is also something of a statistics guru. I think that he, too, sometimes shares the hon. Gentleman's interesting belief that one could remove such matters from politics. However, in the same breath he went on to say something else--and in terms of the real world, which is populated not by people such as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey but by others, the hon. Member for Blackburn made a good point. He said:

    "But often, as someone in the heart of that process I can attest that statistics are used more as hand-grenades to be lobbed at one's opponents, than as a means of illumination. There will always be an element of that in adversarial politics."

Therefore, even if we were to go beyond where we are now and provide sufficient information that could be properly audited and accounted for to Parliament, by means of the great new office that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey wants to set up in the land, anyone who suggested that things would be much different would not be living in the real world. That is probably a truism that both the public at large and anybody who has been in politics will recognise.

I shall now talk about an issue that I promised to address--the integrity of Government statistics. It is wrong of the hon. Gentleman simply to scoff at an extremely important activity. Government statisticians, like all civil servants, have an obligation to serve Ministers, but as part of that obligation, they must ensure the integrity of any departmental statistics and provide impartial advice.

Statisticians do not work alone in some far corner of a Department, and they do not work entirely to Ministers. They observe the official statistics code of practice, published by the Government statistics service, which is based on good practice and designed to promote high standards of accountability and to maintain public confidence in all official statistics and analysis.

The code contains several points that I should draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention because, perhaps inadvertently, he has made an attack on those who provide the information. It requires them to be impartial and objective. They must release information in accordance with the "Code of Practice on Access to Government Information"--open government, as sponsored by this Administration, especially the Prime Minister. They must pre-announce publication dates of statistics, and must take responsibility for the content of statistical press releases. Ministerial press releases containing policy comment must be issued separately; the two cannot be issued together.

It does the hon. Gentleman and his party no credit to try to attack the integrity of the mechanism of government that is underpinned in such a fundamental and clear way, whose standards have been built upon by the Government throughout their period in office.

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