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5.1 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): I rise to support the amendment and to debate the motion.

Two words came to mind when I read the motion. One was "stones" and the other was "glass houses". The Tories seem to have some block--my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State brought this up--in wanting to refer only to waiting lists since May 1997. We know fine well where the seed of the recent surge in NHS waiting lists lies--back in the first quarter of 1991, when the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) introduced his national health service reforms.

Before those reforms, there had never been NHS waiting lists of 1 million people. Over the two years following the reforms, we saw waiting lists rise in every quarter but two. The number went through the million mark and has remained in excess of that ever since. By the time Labour took office, waiting lists were at a record high and were rising faster than at any time in NHS history. I do not think that anybody is surprised at the fact that it will take time to stem the increase and bring the figures down.

I admire my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government for taking the challenge and stating publicly that we shall do something about NHS waiting lists. I should tell Opposition Front Benchers and the House that a timetable for the pledge on waiting lists was never set before the election. I know, because I was party to the writing of that pledge into the manifesto and on to our pledge cards.

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

Mr. Barron: The hon. Gentleman can get his fix a little later in the debate.

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A time was never set. In the past few months, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set a time by which we shall reduce waiting lists to last year's level. Then we shall start reducing them further.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is often very convincing, and is very nearly making a convincing point. He is failing to excuse one other thing. There cannot be a early pledge to do something as a first step in a Parliament--a manifesto applies only for one Parliament--if it is then announced that the pledge will be honoured only by the end of it.

Mr. Barron: I do not agree with that. The hon. Gentleman has covered health matters in the House long enough to recognise the reality of what has been happening in the NHS.

Mr. Brazier: Why pledge that waiting lists will be reduced?

Mr. Barron: Because we shall reduce them; that is why.

The motion

About four weeks ago, Opposition Front Benchers did not know the Government's policy on hospital closures. Indeed, for a short time in the media, trust mergers became hospital closures. I was as confused as those in the Opposition Front-Bench team even before the first 24 hours of their trying to make that point were up.

If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is right in saying that there will be 3,000 more beds in the acute sector by the end of this financial year, it will be the first time that that has happened in the history of the NHS. We ought to be congratulating the Government on being prepared to take such action, given that, year on year, no matter who has been in office, there have been fewer beds at the end of each financial year than there were at the beginning ever since the NHS was brought into being.

In the Budget, the Chancellor provided an extra £500 million for health care, £417 million of which is to be spent on the Government's waiting lists initiative to provide those extra beds. About 850 schemes are being introduced by health authorities all over the country. Such schemes include the provision of more beds, the opening of more wards, more staff being taken on, more theatre time and the extension of treatment, and the introduction of weekend and evening surgeries. Those are not soundbites; they are clear and sensible ways of tackling the problems of NHS waiting lists.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) has had to leave the Chamber. Over the years, I have had a bit of time for her in her independent role as Chairman of the Health Committee. I wish that she had been a little more independent in her speech today. It is not true that the idea behind the waiting lists initiative is to introduce simple, quick and easy procedures. That is far from so. The hon. Lady said that we should target the most needy and not consider what is happening in the NHS. We can all consider individual need, but we must recognise the immediate impact that it has on waiting lists--whether for day surgery, in-patient surgery, or

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whatever. We must consider procedures inside the NHS, to ensure that we get things right. We must ensure that money goes to specifics and gets things done.

In the Rotherham borough, health service partnerships have already agreed a plan of action. The waiting lists initiative in Rotherham health authority will mean an additional 24 gynaecology sessions, covering 100 additional cases, including weekend cases, at a cost of more than £100,000. There will be additional theatre lists for orthopaedics, dealing with an extra 115 cases at a cost of £105,000. There will be two additional ear, nose and throat lists a week, covering 175 cases. Later this year, depending on how things pan out, it is likely that there will be a third ENT consultant, whom we have wanted for many years in my local health service. That additional ENT provision will cost £112,000. We shall get an ophthalmic consultant and extra work at a cost of £131,000; an additional colonoscopy session for 20 cases, costing more than £21,000; and an extra consultant to treat 500 orthopaedic patients annually. We have been after orthopaedic consultants in Rotherham for many years. Unfortunately, it is not the best place in the world to work. We have great problems getting people to come to our area to work in the health service. That will cost £250,000.

For general surgery, we shall get an extra arteriogram session each week to deal with 120 cases, and additional endoscopy will treat 50 cases at a cost of more than £67,000. We shall get an alternate Friday prosthetic list to deal with 25 orthopaedic cases, costing more than £79,000. An additional oral surgery theatre list for 150 cases will cost more than £99,000.

Nearly £1 million is going into Rotherham to help people. Those targets, when met, will benefit hundreds of people who have been waiting for far too long on our national health service lists. Such initiatives should result, not only locally but nationally, in the biggest increase in operations in the history of the NHS and the biggest ever cut in waiting lists. The money will be targeted to deliver what patients want most: shorter waiting lists.

In addition to the extra money, about £500,000 is available in Rotherham for innovative ways of clearing waiting lists. That money will also be invested in reducing waiting lists by maintaining the flow of operations, building on our success last winter. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said that the £300 million for the winter crisis was wasted, but it did exactly what it was planned to do. It avoided the winter crises that we had year on year under the previous Government. We could not acclaim something that was not there and get it into the media. It is nonsense. Rotherham got £769,000 extra last winter to avoid what we had suffered in years gone by.

Mr. Brady: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it was a mild winter and that pressure on the health service was less than it would have been in a normal winter?

Mr. Barron: I do not think that the facts prove that it was such a mild winter. The pressure was reduced by the initiatives mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, such as getting out into the community in Kent to stop flu epidemics. That was how the money was put to good use, to avoid the crises that we have had before.

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Better primary, community and mental health services are coming under this Government. I have a health action zone in one of the poorest areas of Britain. It will start to examine people's problems and the problems that the health service has in delivering. The Government are doing things that have been sadly neglected for many years.

We shall also start to modernise the waiting list system. Some of the extra money will go on pioneering new streamlined appointment systems, so that day patients can book the dates of their operations. It is extraordinary that people go to their general practitioner and then have to wait weeks and weeks before seeing a consultant at the hospital, and then wait weeks for treatment. I can go to one of three travel agents in my town, book holidays, hotels, car hire and everything else anywhere in the world, but people cannot book into a consultant's clinic in a hospital. The information technology that the Government have been getting on with will help us to do that. It is much to their credit that they done it when previous Governments have neglected it.

This is targeted investment, not just giving money to the NHS. The Opposition can say, "We've been giving more than you; aren't we better than you?" but this is about targeting investment, so that we know that it will get waiting lists down and improve the NHS. Good management and innovative change are important. The Government will do better than previous Governments. All Governments do better than their predecessors, because medical science moves on. We shall do better in areas where the previous Government failed, by organising and managing the health service properly.

The 18 years of Conservative government saw waiting lists rise by more than 400,000. In the next four months under Labour, they will begin to fall, and they will continue to fall. The Opposition did not ask the electorate to vote for them again in 1992 by promising to ensure that hospital waiting lists increased. This Government have the courage to do things that many thousands of people want. We have the courage to set targets. The electorate will hold us to account. When we get through this first Labour Government in many years, the Opposition will be sorry that they tabled such a motion, because they will have to eat their words.

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