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Legal Aid (Reform)

Mr. John Bercow accordingly presented a Bill to place restrictions on the granting of legal aid to persons resident outside, or not paying tax in, the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July, and to be printed [Bill 204].

16 Jun 1998 : Column 136

Opposition Day

[13th Allotted Day]

Hospital Waiting Lists

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.41 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move,

We have chosen to debate waiting lists because the Government's broken pledges are of massive concern throughout the country. I was almost encouraged when I switched on my radio this morning and heard that the Secretary of State had announced another 2,000 beds. I thought, "This is wonderful. Every time we have an Opposition day, we can get 2,000 beds out of the Government." We shall consider it a great triumph if, at any time over the next month, the Secretary of State responds to our concerns and announces more money to put into the national health service. We shall be watching for that, and we hope that he will take seriously our request that he should do so.

However, my enthusiasm for the 2,000 beds quickly dwindled when I realised that they were nothing more than the same 2,000 beds that had been announced on 2 June. For one wonderful moment I had thought that we were going to get 4,000 beds, and I am sure that, from the tone of the statements by the Secretary of State, the general public were meant to think that those were extra beds. However, they are not; they are the old beds.

What is more, there is not even any evidence that those 2,000 beds represent a net gain. Are they, for example, to be set against the programme of closures and bed reductions now going on in hospitals throughout the country? This morning, I was at Kent and Canterbury hospital, where a reduction of 400 beds is threatened. Do we assume that those 400 beds will be added back in addition to the 2,000, or are we now talking about a maximum of only 1,600 beds? I would be grateful if the Secretary of State would explain both the minuses and the pluses, and tell us either the net gain or--as I suspect--the net loss.

Before the general election, Labour promised to "save the NHS", and to cut waiting lists by 100,000. They called that their "early pledge". Labour has now been in government for 14 months and we are entitled to examine that early pledge. The Government now say that they will meet the pledge before the next election, so that early pledge has become a "better late than never" pledge.

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Let us recall what Labour told us when it was in opposition. Its posters told us that

its mugs--that is, the china sort--told us, "Treat more NHS patients"; and its election manifesto promised to cut health service waiting lists by 100,000. Then, the Secretary of State told us:

    "This Government only makes promises we intend to keep."

However, the truth is rather different: waiting lists are now 11.5 per cent. higher than when Labour took office and that early pledge has been comprehensively broken. There can be no doubt that those pre-election promises were deliberately designed to make the voters think that waiting lists would be reduced quickly; not only have waiting lists risen, but the Labour Government are deliberately adopting policies that will cause them to rise still further.

The Secretary of State has made various excuses. First, he deliberately put waiting list surgery on hold to cope with a winter crisis that did not, in fact, materialise. The Opposition have been told of cases where temporary nurses were hired at great expense, only for them to have nothing to do, because there was no winter crisis; and of waiting list surgery cancelled, only for the hospitals to have nothing with which to replace it, because there was no winter crisis--a catalogue of waste and inefficiency. I am not suggesting that the Secretary of State could have predicted exactly how mild the winter would be--after all, if he does not know how many hospitals he is responsible for closing, it is most unlikely that he would be in touch with the long-range weather forecasters. However, I am saying that he did not sufficiently think through, or keep sufficiently flexible, his priorities last winter.

Having said that, I give the Secretary of State a little bit of credit, because he accepted that it was his decision and, therefore, his fault. He bungled in his judgment, but at least he had the grace to admit that the record waiting lists were his own creation. He did so in the House, when he said:

He himself made the direct connection; he then said:

    "I set that priority, and the health service met that priority".--[Official Report, 18 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 1290.]

That is more than the Prime Minister is able to do.

During Prime Minister's Question Time on 29 April, the Prime Minister flatly refused to take any responsibility whatsoever for increased waiting lists. I might add that it was not clear from his answer whether or not he held the Secretary of State directly responsible--I suppose that we shall have to wait for the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle to discover the answer to that question. However, there now appears to be a rather interesting dichotomy, between a bungling Secretary of State for Health who admits that it is all his fault and a Prime Minister who cannot take responsibility for anything.

Despite the Secretary of State's flush of culpability over the winter pressures fiasco, it seems that he is not yet ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. Usually, if someone admits an error of judgment that causes untold misery to 133,000 people, one would not expect that person to say,

16 Jun 1998 : Column 138

as the Secretary of State said in his message to trust chairmen and chief executives, "Okay, I bungled, but you're the ones who may be fired." What makes the Secretary of State's response even more astonishing is that the people he has threatened with the boot are the Labour party's friends, whom he had appointed to trust boards barely four months before.

Let me remind the House of the figures: 79 per cent. of those appointees declaring political activity did so for the Labour party; and 84 per cent. of those appointees who are councillors are Labour councillors. That is what the Secretary of State calls

but most people would simply call it gerrymandering.

The reason for that preponderance of Labour activists is the result of a rather convenient oversight: the Department of Health wrote only to council leaders, not chief executives, when seeking nominations from local authorities. It appears that some Labour council leaders--inadvertently, it is said--failed to pass on the letter to their colleagues in other parties, so that only Labour activists were nominated in any significant number by that method.

Of course, it must be a little embarrassing for the Secretary of State. Having gone to all that trouble to ensure that trust boards were packed full of Labour supporters, he is now in the rather awkward position of being forced to sack them all as scapegoats for his Government's broken early pledge on waiting lists.

However, trust chairmen will not have to look pensively through their morning post just yet because it seems that the people's pledges are, in fact, portable pledges, to be moved around whenever it is most convenient to the Government. In March, the Secretary of State promised, to the House and in a press release, that waiting lists would be below 1.16 million within a year--by April 1999. Three months later, on 2 June, he said during Health questions that

Was that just another bungle by the Secretary of State or has he delayed the pledge by three months? Will he now set the record straight? Will the deadline for the first new clause of his revised waiting list pledge expire by 31 March 1999 or 30 June 1999, or will he extend it again? Which is the correct pledge? I look forward to hearing his answer.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson): I know that the right hon. Lady has not been doing her job for very long, but I should have thought that she would have understood by now that under the useless statistical system that we inherited from the previous Government, it takes the national health service about two and a half months to come up with the figures. That is the explanation for the discrepancy.

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