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2.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Paul Boateng): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for raising this topic and for allowing the House to consider the subject of bed blocking in its wider context as well as in relation to his constituency. He asked for plain speaking and he will get it.

The hon. Gentleman asked what he should say to the relatives of those who find themselves in this unenviable position. He should begin by saying sorry. He should say, "We are sorry that for 18 years we got it wrong and neglected the issues. We are sorry that you have had to wait so long for a Labour Government to begin to address the problem."

I am sorry that I had to begin my speech in that way because, when I was first made aware that we were to have a debate about bed blocking in Essex, I had hoped that it would be possible to approach the matter in a non-party political way. I am not in the slightest bit interested in scoring party political points over the issue of bed blocking. We need to move forward and look to the future, not the past--that is the theme of this new Labour Government.

I was therefore sorry that the hon. Gentleman, in his inimitable fashion, having cast a few kind personal words towards me, immediately began to castigate the new Government on their size. The Government are smaller than the Conservative Government who preceded them. There are fewer Ministers in this Government than there were in the Conservative Government, yet the hon. Gentleman had the nerve to call us the party of big government. The reverse is true: we are a small and more efficient bunch than they ever were.

The hon. Gentleman began in that rancorous tone and then started on his knockabout stuff in relation to the Liberal Democrat-Labour leadership of his county council. We did not have to have that; we all understand that bed blocking is a problem. We all know where its origins as a national phenomenon lie. We all know what the NHS and local authorities have had to endure these many years. We all know that we have begun the process of addressing those problems. The hon. Gentleman did not have to seek to point the finger at his own county council in the partisan, party political way that he did. It was simply not necessary.

Mr. Bob Russell: We have heard a one-sided view from the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). This is a national issue as well as an Essex one. People are living longer and we have to return to the fact that the NHS has not been adequately funded. In the current financial year, Essex county council's revenue support grant was less than the amount required to fund the service.

Mr. Boateng: There we have it--part of the authentic voice of Essex. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Southend, West expresses surprise and incomprehension at what the British people decided at the last general election. It is because of his incomprehension of the needs of the British people that he and his colleagues find themselves in such greatly reduced numbers in the House. That is part and parcel of the reality--the hon. Gentleman finds it hard to comprehend the nature and spirit of the British people.

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Mr. Amess: What is the Minister going to do about the problem?

Mr. Boateng: If the hon. Gentleman will be so kind as to contain himself, he will find out how we intend to proceed on this matter. He will also find out how we are markedly different from the Administration of which he was one of the most slavish and sycophantic supporters before taking the chicken run from Basildon to his present constituency. Let us be aware of the context in which the hon. Gentleman is raising this question.

I have had the opportunity to speak both to the chairman of the local social services department and to Mrs. Taylor, the chairman of the local NHS trust. We met in totally different circumstances, but I raised the issue of bed blocking with both of them. I have also made sure that officials in my Department have had an opportunity to consider the issue, specifically in relation to Essex.

What we find is this: that the Southend Healthcare NHS trust, the chief executive of South Essex district health authority and the director of Essex social services are working together on the issue. They are working in a collaborative way, trying to get past the culture of blame that, unfortunately, bedevilled the previous Administration. A report has gone to the executive board of South Essex health authority setting out a range of options that could be pursued to relieve the pressure caused by the current level of delayed discharges, including--the hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear this--the purchase of nursing home placement, the extension of domiciliary care services and new arrangements with the voluntary sector.

Let us pause at that point. What we are talking about is private provision and voluntary sector involvement, as well as and alongside public sector involvement--a big difference. I suggest that the big difference between the new Labour Government and the Conservative Government--to whose last Secretary of State for Health the hon. Gentleman made obeisance in characteristically sycophantic form in the closing part of his speech--is that we genuinely believe in public-private partnership. The hon. Gentleman and his party do not believe in it.

The Conservatives sought to distort the market. They never created a level playing field between the public and the private sector and, even more shamefully, they failed to put in place the proper regulatory mechanism to enable us to address that matter. We shall not make the same mistake. It is the Conservative party that is the party of dogma, which is why the number of their Members of Parliament has been so reduced. We are the party that is about dealing with the problems that we have inherited, and doing so in a practical and efficient way.

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We have begun the process of bringing together the parties involved in this problem--parties concerned, first and foremost, with the experience of patients and concerned to make sure that patients get an opportunity to return, not only to the community, but to their own homes with the properly established rehabilitative and recuperative services that are necessary to ensure that we relieve the problem of bed blocking, but do not then have to re-admit them. That is very important and I am glad that, in the collaborative and co-operative manner that is now the order of the day in terms of the interface between the NHS and local authorities, the issue is being taken forward.

Good practice is what we need. The Government will seek to ensure that we get it--that we balance the needs and wishes of patients and their carers with the requirement for the most effective use of available resources, both public and private. The test will be quality and value for money. I want to encourage that patient-centred approach. Our manifesto made a commitment to introduce a charter for long-term care, which will set out what people can expect from health, housing and social services when they face difficult and sometimes painful decisions when making plans for their future care. I have set in motion within the Department the necessary work to bring that about.

Many patients need to be given the time and opportunity to recover properly from any treatment that they have received and any illness or conditions that they have been afflicted with. We shall give them that. We are anxious that at all times their dignity and independence are respected and nurtured.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Southend, West has brought this issue to the Floor of the House. I very much hope that we can continue to work in a non-party political, non-partisan way, across the boundaries and fault lines that exist in the political process and, above all, across the boundaries and fault lines that have existed from time to time between the NHS and local authorities. I hope that, in that spirit, he will find my response to this important debate helpful and constructive.

This is only the beginning. Things can only get better and we are here to work with the NHS and local government to ensure that that happens, to ensure that all our citizens--

The motion having been made at half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour,Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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