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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Is my right hon. Friend further aware that when waiting lists in Salford and Trafford, in my health authority area, have risen by about 5 per cent. in only four months, there is the further scandal of operations being moved? People are not being moved through the system and then having operations, but being removed from waiting lists and going on to deferred lists, which do not count in the official figures. That is happening, but we are still seeing waiting lists increasing dramatically.

Miss Widdecombe: My hon. Friend is right, but I also want to ask the Secretary of State another simple question. The first was, will he acknowledge that the statement in his amendment is wrong, which means that he cannot press the amendment because it would mislead the House?

Mr. Dobson: No, I will not.

Miss Widdecombe: The Secretary of State is saying that that child has not waited 19 months. I shall read that into the record, and I am sure that the mother of that child will want to take it up. He is saying that she is not telling the truth, but he should be saying that the amendment is wrong and should be withdrawn, because to press it would be to mislead the House, which I am sure he would not want to do.

Let me ask the Secretary of State another simple question. He talks about 18-month waiting lists. That, of course, is for treatment. There is an easy way to make sure that no one waits more than 18 months for treatment, which is to make sure that they wait rather a long time for a consultation. Will he please publish lists of how long people have been waiting for consultations, and make them comparative, so that we can see the true state of affairs?

Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest): I of course accept that the right hon. Lady has managed to identify one person who has been waiting more than 18 months, but does she accept that, under the Conservative Government, a time was reached when 220,000 people had been waiting more than 18 months, and 92,000 people had been waiting more than two years? Would she apologise to those people, whom she let down year after year?

Miss Widdecombe: The Conservative Government cut the number waiting for more than a year from 200,000 to 15,000. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would applaud that.

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In considering this rather silly amendment, which contains an inaccuracy and which the Secretary of State, in all decency, should not press on the House, we should make a final survey of what we inherited, what they inherited and where we are now. In the last full year of the previous Labour Government, there was a 2.7 per cent. cut in the NHS. Under us, there were consistent rises, year on year. During our previous period in government, our spending rose 74 per cent. The Labour Government's capital investment fell; ours rose, by 66 per cent. Under us, pay for doctors and dentists went up 34.5 per cent.; under them, it went down 31 per cent. Under us, nurses' pay went up 67 per cent.; under them, it went down 3 per cent. Our lists of people waiting more than a year went down by 92 per cent.; theirs went up by 26 per cent. [Interruption.] I am wrong. I am sorry, but I thought that one of my hon. Friends wanted to intervene. I always value contributions from my hon. Friends, so I was prepared to give one of them a chance to speak.

Where are we, at the end of just over a year of the Labour Government being in power? They plan to reduce flexibility for doctors, they have closed hospitals and reduced spending year on year, and they put such an emphasis on statistics that we are being told that basic care is suffering. That can all be summed up easily: they spend less, they close more, they make people wait longer.

Mr. Ian Bruce: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I crave your advice on something that is going on in the House--behind you, I am afraid, because of the people who are involved. The normal situation is that people in the Box send notes to Ministers. Those notes are being caught up by the parliamentary private secretaries and sent round to other people.

Madam Speaker: My only concern is that either a Minister or a PPS approaches the Box.

4.19 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The Tory attack on our handling of the national health service seems to me to be an unholy combination of barefaced cheek and amnesia.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I am not giving way for the time being. Many Back-Bench Members wish to speak. The shadow Secretary of State went on for a long time, and so that other people can contribute to the debate, I do not propose to take a large number of interventions.

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The motion tabled by the Leader of the Opposition begins by regretting the increase in waiting lists since May 1997. We welcome the Tories' new interest in waiting lists. I wonder why they regret only the increase since May 1997. They have expressed no views on the massive increases in waiting lists that took place before 1997. I have checked the records. Such has been the massive concern of the parliamentary Tory party about waiting lists that, during the previous Parliament, when more than 230,000 questions were tabled and answered, Conservative Members asked just 32 questions about waiting lists, which is six a year.

Miss Widdecombe: The reason for the concentration of interest on waiting lists as opposed to waiting times or capital spending is that Labour made the promise, and the Government are being held to account. The interest in waiting lists stems from Labour's rash promise.

Mr. Dobson: The Opposition spokeswoman has taken up more time in my speech than I have, and she has already had 40 minutes of her own.

Under the Tories, there was a relentless increase in hospital waiting lists. During the 1990s, after the reforms of the national health service of which the Tories were so proud, the figure exceeded 1 million. They seem to have forgotten that, when we took over in May last year we inherited from them record national health service waiting lists, which were rising faster than at any time in the history of the service. They have either forgotten that, or they are proud of their useless record when they were responsible for the health service.

Not only do we regret the rise in the waiting lists both before and after May last year, but we intend to do something about it. That is what we promised at the general election. It is worth remembering that, at that election, the Tories proposed to do nothing more about waiting lists: they were apparently satisfied with things as they were.

Mr. Heald: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I shall not give way.

The people of this country want waiting lists to come down. For them, the worst aspect of the health service is the waiting: waiting for an ambulance, waiting in accident and emergency, waiting for an out-patient appointment, waiting to go into hospital, and, for God's sake, once they are in hospital, sometimes having to wait to get out again. We recognised that concern, and we promised to get waiting lists down. The Tory party was apparently quite satisfied with the situation that then prevailed.

It will not be easy to get the waiting lists down: no one ever suggested that it would be. As I said this time last year, they are like a supertanker: it will take time to slow them down, longer to stop them rising, and even longer to turn them around.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): What was "early" about the Secretary of State's pledge?

Mr. Dobson: It was certainly an early pledge, and we are doing something about it. If we are to improve the health service, we must take account of the state it was in when we inherited it. It was in a very bad state. It was

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stretched almost to breaking point. Staff were run off their feet, and there was a lack of resources. The Tory Government used to pride themselves on the way in which they looked after public money. Sixty of the 100 health authorities--60 per cent.--were in debt.

A massive increase in the number of emergency cases had been taking place for some time. When we took office, we asked the officials what research had been done into the reasons for that increase, and what had been done to tackle it. Answer came there none. The idle, useless lot who had preceded us had not examined the problem at all; we have had to start doing so.

Last summer, I made it clear that, in the coming winter--last winter--the national health service should give priority to dealing with emergencies. We realised that, given the resources then available to the NHS, we could not ask it both to bring waiting lists down and to deal with emergencies. I took responsibility for that from the day on which I said it, and I continue to accept personal responsibility. I am not ashamed to do so. I said that emergencies should come first. I took substantial steps to promote joint working throughout the NHS and with social services all over the country, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer provided an additional £300 million to cope with emergencies during the winter.

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