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Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Milburn: I shall give way in a moment. The hon. Member for Woodspring made much of distorting numbers and distorting the truth. I wish that he would concentrate on the genuine figures, and the truth about the number of heart

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operations. He alleges that the number of heart operations decreased in the last year for which we have figures. That is not true. In 1997-98, there were 21,110 coronary artery bypass grafts. The following year--when the hon. Gentleman claims that the numbers fell--they increased by approximately 1,300 to 22,494. The hon. Member for Woodspring and other Conservative Members should give fewer lessons on distorting the truth.

Mr. Burns: On the Secretary of State's claims about falling waiting lists, will he tell me in straightforward language why 8,391 were waiting for hospital treatment in the Mid Essex hospital trust area on 31 March 1997, whereas the latest figures show that 9,953 people are waiting? Why have not the numbers on waiting lists fallen in the past three years?

Mr. Milburn: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the number for in-patients has fallen by 100,000. The number of out-patients waiting for treatment remains too high--that is undeniable--but it is falling. Last year, for the first time since records began, the number of in-patients and the number of out-patients waiting for treatment fell at the same time.

The hon. Gentleman knows that performance varies across the NHS. I cannot micro-manage the North Essex trust, if that is the relevant trust. Management is up to individual managers and clinicians. If the hon. Gentleman, as the local representative, is so worried about the matter, he should take up the trust's performance with the people who are responsible for it.

Dr. Stoate: My right hon. Friend promised to present a clear contrast between the Government's priorities and those of the Conservative party. How is that possible when the Conservative party has not yet identified its priorities?

Mr. Milburn: If my hon. Friend has a little patience, I shall come to the Conservative party's priorities. To give him a little taster, I can tell him now that Conservative Members' priorities are not to modernise the NHS. They want to spend public money on subsidising the costs of private health insurers. That is their priority; the hon. Member for Woodspring told John Humphrys that on "On the Record" on Sunday. He also told the NHS Confederation in Glasgow yesterday that that was Conservative policy.

The hon. Gentleman has trouble remembering what he said from one day to the next. Yesterday, he said in his speech in Glasgow that it was not right to send out health service circulars on clean hospitals; today, he claims that it is right. I assume that he abides by his comments on BBC television, and that Conservative party policy is to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' money not on modernising the NHS, but on subsidising more and more people to go private. That is the Conservative party's priority, but it is not that of this party.

Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon): Doubtless my right hon. Friend will agree with John Humphrys' remarks in The Sunday Times last week, when he described Conservative party polices as wishful thinking.

Mr. Milburn: I do not always agree with John Humphrys, and I did not see the article to which my

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hon. Friend refers. Whether the Conservative party's policy is wishful thinking is a secondary consideration. What counts is who can be trusted with this country's health service. People will decide that in the forthcoming general election.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Milburn: I shall give way in a moment. It is time not only to judge the Conservative party on its past record, but on its promises for the future.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the Secretary of State explain why he has changed the guidelines on hospital transport? The change means that an 84-year-old woman with angina was able to get an ambulance to take her to hospital, but was not allowed an ambulance to take her home. That is a disgraceful way in which to treat our elderly people. Will the Secretary of State examine the guidelines as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Milburn: I shall look at the guidelines, although I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. As he and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)--who really ought to calm down as I may give way to him if he behaves himself--should be aware, the Government are investing extra money in patient transport. More money is going to improve and modernise ambulance services, to get response times down and to make sure that patient transport is available. Of course I will look into the hon. Gentleman's concerns if he writes to me with the details.

Mr. Ivan Lewis: Does my right hon. Friend agree that more interesting than the comments of John Humphrys are the comments of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), the former Secretary of State for Social Security, when he said this month:

What does my right hon. Friend think that says about those who remain on the Opposition Front Bench?

Mr. Milburn: It says quite simply that they have won the argument within the Conservative party. There were one-nation Tories in charge of the Conservative party, but now they are all on the Back Benches or they have left this place. The people who are in charge of the Conservative party today are like the hon. Member for Woodspring, who rightly described himself as an ardent Thatcherite free-marketeer. That is what he is, and proud of it, and it is about time that the British people understood the implications of that sort of policy for the national health service.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said that the party will be judged at the time of the general election. He knows that a number of hospitals and services in my constituency are under threat. The South Staffordshire health authority is conducting a review. He knows that as we have discussed the matter at Health questions. Why has the regional health authority told the South

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Staffordshire health authority to delay any final decisions on closures of hospitals and services in my constituency until after the next general election?

Mr. Milburn: I do not know when the next general election will be, and I guess that the regional office of the NHS does not know when it will be. The hon. Gentleman has asked a question so I shall try to give him a helpful answer.

Mr. Fabricant: Think quickly.

Mr. Milburn: I shall heed that advice, which is always gratefully received. Perhaps it could apply to those on the Opposition Front Bench and other Opposition Members.

Consultation is taking place in the hon. Gentleman's area. It will continue and the hon. Gentleman should participate in it, as I expect that his views will be listened to. However, the Conservatives cannot have their cake and eat it. The hon. Member for Woodspring, who speaks for the Conservative party on these issues, is urging me not to micro-manage the national health service and not to get involved in local decisions. I agree with him on that. He is absolutely right. We want to make sure that the people on the ground have the tools and the resources to do the job. However, Conservative Members should not then ask me to intervene in each and every case. Those on the Conservative Front Bench, and those on the Conservative Back Benches, should really get their act together.

We have made rebuilding the fabric of the national health service a priority--[Interruption.] I wish that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) would stop chuntering to himself. Accident and emergency departments in 182 hospitals are being expanded and refurbished, 1,000 GP surgeries are being modernised--[Interruption.] Keep taking the tablets.

By the end of the year, 36 walk-in centres will be open, and by next April, we will have created nearly 500 additional secure beds for people with severe mental illness. A new hospital in Carlisle has already been opened.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is my right hon. Friend aware that under the previous Government, the new hospital in my constituency was cancelled four times even though the premises of one of our hospitals was the old Victorian workhouse? Within three months of the Labour Government coming to power, the project was given approval and the new hospital was opened in April on budget, and ahead of time. That is the difference between the Tory Government and the Labour Government.

Mr. Milburn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Milburn: Let me answer my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and then I shall give way. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people of Carlisle, the community in north Cumbria and, indeed, my hon. Friend have campaigned assiduously and put a very strong case for a new hospital in their city. I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was able to open the new hospital. I shall read out the list in

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a moment or two, but I can tell my hon. Friend that it will not be the last new hospital to be opened this year, next year or the year after.

Some 21 other major hospital developments are already under construction, and those in Dartford, Rochdale and south Buckinghamshire will be finished this year--the hon. Member for Buckingham might wish to jump up and congratulate the Government. Five more hospitals will be completed next year and nine more the year after. That is the biggest hospital building programme that the NHS has ever seen.

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