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5.14 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) gave his usual robust speech, but he did not answer the point that I put to him.

As always, we welcome the opportunity to debate health. We even welcome the opportunity to debate waiting lists, although, as I will explain, we think that the Government chose the wrong target, so this is the wrong focus for a debate.

When the Labour party was in opposition, it tried to think up a compact promise for what it would do for the national health service. Labour thought of a nice, tight soundbite, "We will save the NHS." I am happy about that, because the NHS was in some difficulty under that party's predecessors. The Labour party then tried to think what that would mean in substance. Despite all the sound advice that it will have received from professionals and

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from within its own ranks that people care far more about how long they wait for treatment than about how many people are in the queue with them, in the end, the Labour party chose the wrong target. Labour made only one early pledge on health and, unfortunately, it was the wrong one. The Government are hoist by their own petard. They must deliver, but they are now in difficulties.

Rumour has it that some Ministers, including senior Ministers, know that they are spending money on the wrong things. This is their bed and they must lie on it. The Secretary of State took few interventions and, in particular, refused one from my medical friend, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who may know something about the matter.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Alan Milburn): My right hon. Friend knew what he was going to say.

Mr. Hughes: The difficulty may be that the Minister may not like what my hon. Friend was going to say. The Secretary of State listed things to do with waiting that mattered to patients. Every one was to do not with waiting lists but with waiting times--more clear evidence from him that the Government have got their target wrong.

That evidence is backed up by what the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said when in opposition. In 1996, when he launched the document--to which the hon. Member for Rother Valley may have been referring--"New Labour, New Life for Britain", and gave the early pledge, his explanation was:

I could not agree more. We all understand that the longer people wait, the longer, by definition, they are likely to be in pain or discomfort.

Having adopted waiting lists, not waiting times, the Government are in considerable difficulty. There was no hint that it would take five years, the whole Parliament, to get 100,000 people off the list. There was no such qualification. I challenge any Labour Member to produce one bit of evidence from any Labour candidate who said that it would take the whole Parliament. It was not even said immediately after the general election, but said some little time later. Someone must have told the Secretary of State that he had better qualify it. That is not surprising: if one makes the wrong pledge, one ends up in difficulty.

It is not only me, my party or the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), but the British Medical Association, the Health Service Journal, the British Medical Journal and the Government's advisers who say, "It's the wrong target, Government. We are sorry that you made that so clear."

The only problem is that, although the Secretary of State has said that he is embarrassed about the fact that the numbers waiting are rising, nobody has yet owned up to the fact that the Labour party is embarrassed because it chose the wrong target. I hope that the Minister of State will say, "I'm sorry, we were wrong;"--it makes a welcome change to hear Governments of any colour admit that they were wrong--"but we chose the wrong target. We will deliver, although it will take us longer than we said and longer than we planned--but actually it is waiting times, not waiting lists, that we should be talking about."

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If the great socialist Labour party nirvana can be reached by--

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): Socialist?

Mr. Hughes: That is doubtful; let us assume that it is neo-socialist, or new Labour.

If the great nirvana can be reached by taking100,000 people off a waiting list that now consists of1,300,000 people, that is a pretty mean, poor target. I do not think that out there the people will be greatly rejoicing at the prospect held out by the Government: "By the end of this Parliament, one in 13 people on the NHS waiting list will not be waiting any more, but 12 out of 13 will still be waiting. Sorry about that, kids." At that rate, it would take 50 years of Labour Governments to get those people off the list. I do not think that that is an encouraging prospect. It is a pretty thin, mean, small, pathetic target.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West) rose--

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

If that is all that the one promise made about health before the election means, it is pretty thin gruel.

I shall not rehearse the fact--because we all know it, and it is recounted every three months--that waiting lists have gone up ever since the election. For the first few three-month periods, that was not Labour's fault; for the second few, it was more Labour's fault; and, if the numbers keep going up, it will be even more Labour's fault.

We all understand that supertankers take a long time to turn around. I hope that the Secretary of State is right and the figures come down. Indeed, I hope that they come down by much more than 100,000--by more than 200,000 or by more than 300,000--but there ain't much sign of that yet. I certainly hope that our colleagues on the Labour Benches do not say at the next election, "We've done wonders; we've taken one in 13 people off the waiting list, and that allows us to come before you and ask for re-election."

We are debating waiting lists on a Tory motion, so it would be unfair not to say a word about the motion, or about the Tory record, despite the fact that, as the Tories are not in power and the Labour party is, what the Government do is more relevant at the moment. My job as the spokesman for an Opposition party is to hold to account the Government, rather than Her Majesty's official--more official than us--Opposition. [Interruption.] They are not the only official Opposition, but they are the only technically registered official Opposition, even if they are not always the most effective Opposition.

It is a bit difficult for the Tories to launch an attack about waiting lists and waiting times, for three statistical reasons. First, between 1979 and 1997--their famous 18 years--waiting lists rose by 546,000, or more than half a million. Secondly, under the Tories, a record number of people were waiting for more than a year for operations--there were 200,000 of them in September 1987. Thirdly, under the Tories, a record number of people had been waiting for more than two years for operations--almost 50,000 of them.

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The Tory record is therefore difficult to defend, despite the fact that, at the end, although there were many more people waiting, there were fewer people waiting for longer--[Interruption.]--which we welcomed. We have always welcomed that.

Miss Widdecombe: Thank you.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Member for Rother Valley used a comparison that I had not thought of when he talked about stones and glass houses. I, on the other hand, was thinking about pots and kettles, which suggested to me the fact that there was "something of the night" about the Conservative attack--but I do not want to go further down that road.

The point made by the Secretary of State at the end of his speech, which I also made in an intervention to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, needs answering. The Tory party cannot credibly attack the Government on waiting lists while the Conservative shadow Chancellor says that the Labour party is profligate with public spending.

Mr. Duncan: Yes, it can.

Mr. Hughes: All right; the Tory party can say that waiting lists are too high and should come down, but that the money that the Labour party is putting in is far too much. [Interruption.] I shall wait for the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) to explain how two apparently contradictory statements--

Miss Widdecombe: The pledges are contradictory.

Mr. Hughes: I agree. We always said that before the election. The Minister of State was shadowing the health portfolio for Labour before the election, and he and his hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley will both know that we said then that Labour could not pledge to keep to Tory spending totals and still expect to save the NHS. Those pledges were incompatible, and have been proved to be incompatible. [Interruption.] There is not a punter out there who does not know that.

Saving the NHS needs more public money--[Interruption.]--as the Chancellor announced on Thursday.

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