Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Rendel: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of that money at least will be wasted by the Government's failure to put money into local authorities, which will mean cuts in social services and therefore more health service spending?

Mr. Hoyle: I am sorry that I gave way if that is the best that we will get this morning. It is about the NHS,

13 Jan 1999 : Column 238

and supporting the NHS is the £21 billion that is there for the NHS to spend. We must remember the staff, who ought to be at the forefront of our minds. I believe that the Government take on that responsibility well. The Government will ensure that the staff are happy because if the staff are unhappy the NHS will fail to work. We must bring forward those recommendations to ensure that we attract people to the NHS and then retain them. Those are the crucial messages that we must send out--not only have the Government put in £21 billion, but we care about the NHS workers, and that will come across loud and clear when my hon. Friend the Minister replies.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister of State to congratulate the staff of the Chorley and South Ribble hospital on the way in which they have managed to cope with the flu epidemic in the north-west. Those dedicated and loyal staff ensured that the hospital remained open, and I wish to put on the record the House's congratulations to them on the work they put in over Christmas. Christmas is a time when people expect to be with their families, but the staff did not hesitate or shrink from the job they are paid to do. They came in and volunteered to keep the hospital going. It would be nice if we could reward their dedication somewhere along the line.

The NHS is not only about nurses but about doctors, auxiliaries, porters, and everyone involved who plays a part. It is important to keep the NHS together and continue to reward the staff. We must ensure that the Government never turn away from that pledge. I was proud to be elected in 1997 and I was proud to see the investment in the NHS to ensure that it has a viable future--a future in which the Government can take pride. I hope that we can go into the next election with a clean record on health.

There is always more that we can do. There always will be matters on which people will say that we are failing. That will continue as health evolves. There always will be a need for more funding. I know that we will not shrink from that, and I am proud to have been elected into this Labour Government.

10.44 am

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): First, I welcome the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) to the Dispatch Box. We served on the Select Committee on Social Security together and it is good to have the opportunity to spar with him again. We can see a pattern emerging here. Whenever the Government are in crisis and a Minister resigns, we lose someone from the health team. A Minister goes and a new one comes. In that spirit, I wish the Minister of State continuing and rapid promotion.

We have a lot to thank the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for this morning, as he has raised this very important topic. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am ever reasonable and it is more often than not that I agree with him--particularly with his analysis of the problems that the NHS faces, and his reasonable attacks on the Government for failing to admit that rationing inevitably exists in the NHS. I disagree with some of the solutions that he advocates, and he fails particularly to explain how the NHS can be properly funded. Calling always for more is one of the privileges

13 Jan 1999 : Column 239

of permanent opposition. I can see the merits of the wish of the hon. Gentleman for Parliament to vote on pay levels but, again, I must ask him where the money would come from. He never says.

The hon. Gentleman did not say much about midwives, although that is one of the topics of his debate. However, I understand that he was pressed for time. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) pointed out that I have spoken to midwives a number of times, and they are indignant at the way in which their case been handled by the Government. A Minister would not even turn up to either of their two lobbies of Parliament, and they feel strongly that they need a re-evaluation of their grading.

Midwives also feel strongly that childbirth is not just about going to modern, central hospitals--it is about home births. I say that with feeling, as I was a home birth. Believe it or not, I was a 10 lb baby. I do not quite know what went wrong since. [Interruption.] I see my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) coming in. I do not know what size of baby he was.

The debate is largely about nurses, and their plight is critical. The Royal College of Nursing estimates that, across Britain, 12,000 to 13,000 full-time posts are unfilled. The turnover of nurses leaving their jobs has dramatically increased since the general election; so, indeed--in a survey of NHS trusts--has their judgment as to whether or not they have a recruitment problem dramatically increased since the general election on 1 May 1997. Whereas about 33 per cent. thought that they had a problem, it is now 78 per cent. I fear that it is creeping up to 100 per cent. who feel that they have a problem.

As the Royal College of Nursing has said, the decision in January 1998 to stage the pay award was absolutely devastating to morale. Nurses feel that that was a betrayal of everything that they were promised by the Labour party in opposition. It is the policy of Her Majesty's official Opposition to say that the Government must honour any pay review recommendation in full, and do it in one go without staging. In that sense, we agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and with the first two points that he outlined this morning.

I must pass swiftly over what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said. He made a lot of noise and called for a lot more. He is either in tune with the Labour Government or he is, once again, split from it. We shall soon find out on which side of that divide he sits.

The plight of nurses, midwives and health visitors is but a part of a set of wider problems in the NHS that are made much worse by the Government. When the Government are told that a hospital should stay open, they shut it. When they are told that a hospital should shut, they keep it open. Their pressure on the whole system to fiddle the waiting list figures is affecting patient care for the worse. The recruitment and retention problem in the nursing profession has been made critical by those actions. They have patients waiting on trolleys and corpses in container coolers waiting to be buried. What the Government do for nurses, midwives and health visitors will be a crucial test for them. We and the country are waiting to see whether they pass or fail this critical test.

13 Jan 1999 : Column 240

10.49 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Denham): I welcome the opportunity to respond to this important debate on a key group of national health service staff who do such a tremendous job, often in less than ideal circumstances. Like other hon. Members, I shall concentrate on nurses, midwives and health visitors, but I, too, acknowledge the contribution of all who work in the health service throughout the year.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on his success in obtaining the debate. However, his comments and those of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) would have had more credibility if those hon. Gentlemen had had the grace to acknowledge what the Government have done and the extent to which we have exceeded the promises made by the Liberal Democrats at the last election.

In their election manifesto, the Liberal Democrats promised to spend an extra £540 million each year on the NHS. In our first two years, we have put in an extra £2 billion. As my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) said, over the next three years, we shall put in an extra £21 billion, which is far and away more than the Liberal Democrats ever promised.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) for his kind words. His promises would have more credibility if we all had shorter memories.

The background to today's debate is, in part, the recent pressure on the NHS and on emergency admissions in particular. In a statement to the House on Monday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State acknowledged the impact of the recent surge in the numbers of people needing to visit their doctor, call an ambulance or be admitted to hospital. He paid tribute to all the NHS staff who are coping, despite the fact that their own numbers have been depleted through illness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley invited me to congratulate staff in his local hospital. I send my congratulations to all the staff who have worked so hard over recent weeks.

My right hon. Friend set out the measures that have been taken to cope with winter pressures. Some £159 million has been allocated for schemes to provide extra beds, more round-the-clock operations, early discharge schemes supported by community nurses, and partnership projects with social services. Last week, we published details of almost 2,200 schemes being carried out by health authorities. Today, we have published further details of 185 partnership schemes being carried out jointly by the health service and local social service departments in a combined effort to deal with winter pressures.

Over the past week, parts of the NHS with particular problems that could be eased by extra cash have been given access to the £50 million contingency fund. Those measures are making a real difference to the ability of the NHS to cope with the present situation.

All over the country, people are working flat out to deal with winter pressures. The publication of the joint partnership proposals today shows that they are not doing so on their own. People working in social service departments in local councils are doing their bit to bolster

13 Jan 1999 : Column 241

those efforts. Huge demands on the NHS are being met by an unprecedented level of partnership between hospitals and councils.

In spite of those measures, the NHS is still under real pressure, and part of the problem is the shortage of nurses. Unlike our predecessors, this Government acknowledge that there is a shortage. We have put in place a range of measures to put things right in the medium to long term. There is no one-stop quick fix.

As the debate has highlighted, an imminent issue is the recommendations of the pay review body, which are due shortly. Despite the invitation of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, I am not sure that it would be a career-enhancing move if I announced the results of that process today. The House will understand that I cannot anticipate our response today. We shall respond at the appropriate time.

Next Section

IndexHome Page