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4.29 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I hope that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) will forgive me if I do not take up her remarks, except to say that having heard them I now fully understand the meaning of the expression "Blair's babe".

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on raising this important issue for debate. First, I shall take up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) about the allegations that have been made throughout the debate and at other times that the Opposition, when in government, would want to privatise the national health service. That is not true and is deeply offensive to all of us who believe passionately in the

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NHS. We have been in government for more than 50 per cent. of the lifetime of the health service. I am fair-minded enough to pay full credit to the Labour party for the establishment of the NHS in 1948 but it is a bit rich for the Government to make cheap party political points by spreading fears around the country that my party would privatise the health service. We would not privatise the national health service.

We believe in the NHS, in the way that the vast majority of people do. They want the national health service and they are content to pay their taxes to finance it. I wish that Ministers, Labour Members and prospective parliamentary candidates would stop this nonsense of suggesting that we would not keep the NHS on the basic premise on which it was established.

Such strands of propaganda are not unique in history. It is thought by some that if a big enough lie is spread often enough, the drip, drip, drip effect will convince people that there is some truth in it. I was outraged by a document that was put through my constituents' letter boxes two months ago, "Labour Rose", published by the Labour party at Millbank. It categorically tells people that, under the Conservatives

That is an outright lie. To show that Labour has learned the lessons of dishonest propaganda from others who are far better at it, Labour tries to give that document authenticity by incorporating a little box headed:

Hip replacement, hernia and cataract removal operations are all included, with price bands presented as though they were factual. To add insult to injury, it says:

That is a lie. There is no other word for it.

I assure Labour Members that the Tory party will not vote for privatisation because we do not believe in it.

Mr. Hesford: Which Tory party?

Mr. Burns: That was very funny. The hon. Gentleman tried to get a laugh but did not raise one.

The Conservative party believes in the national health service, as it has shown not only in every general election since 1948 but in the way that it put more and more money into the NHS during its stewardship and sought to raise standards of patient care.

Labour Members may, with total sincerity, disagree with some of the reforms that Conservative Governments have implemented, but they were introduced with the most sincere of motives--to improve and enhance patient care. Labour Members will say that we want an expanded private health sector to work with the NHS. If individuals wish to spend their money on private care, they are entitled to do so. I certainly do not believe that anyone should be made to do so and we have no such proposals. It causes me no problems if people want to spend their money on private health care--no more than if any Government, including the present Administration, want to spend some of the taxpayer's money on treatment in

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private hospitals because they want to deal with waiting lists. If that means that the patient will be treated more quickly, I have no problem with it, provided that treatment is free at the point of delivery to that patient and the NHS picks up the bill.

I hope that nonsensical claims about privatisation will stop, because we do not believe in it. Privatisation is not going to happen and it is not the sort of thing that hon. Members such as me would agree to or vote for in the Lobby in a month of Sundays.

Liz Blackman: The Opposition spokesperson on health stated in The Sunday Times:

That is on the record. Is the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) distancing himself from his party spokesperson? If so, is it not correct--as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hesford) suggested--that there are several Conservative parties?

Mr. Burns: I will answer the hon. Lady's question in my own way. She will have to ask my hon. Friend but, not wishing to duck the issue, I will give my interpretation and understanding of his remarks. If private health insurance companies covered such operations for people who have voluntarily taken out policies, it would relieve pressure on the NHS for the more expensive operations. That is very different from saying that my party insists that individuals take out private health insurance to cover cataract and other relatively minor, non-emergency treatment to relieve the financial pressures on the NHS and fund major operations.

Liz Blackman: Does the hon. Gentleman support his party's proclaimed policy of introducing tax relief on private medical care premiums?

Mr. Burns: It would be perverse of me not to because I voted for that policy when Margaret Thatcher's Government introduced it in the late 1980s.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: For elderly people.

Mr. Burns: For elderly people. I do not have a problem with that policy if it would help more elderly people, for whom tax relief would make all the difference by allowing them to afford private care. That is a matter of individual choice.

The bottom line is that I could not under any circumstances support or agree to the privatisation of the NHS. I do not doubt that my party has no intention whatever of seeking to privatise the health service. I hope that Labour--and the Liberal Democrats, who have always enjoyed getting into the gutter to attack both the Government and the official Opposition--will stop pursuing that tack, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) was doing this afternoon. There is no truth in it.

A matter of particular concern to my constituents is hospital waiting lists. Notwithstanding the national figures, there are problems in parts of the country. Waiting lists in my trust area are probably among the

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worst in Britain. My constituents are disappointed and confused when they hear that waiting lists have gone down elsewhere. They were promised by my opponents at the last general election that under a Labour Government, all waiting lists in mid-Essex would reduce dramatically. However, there has not been a single day since 2 May 1997 when the in-patient waiting list has dipped below the level at which it was on 31 March 1997. There are at present 1,600 more patients on the list than when the Government came to power, and the waiting list to get on to a waiting list has soared, as I said to the hon. Member for South Swindon, from 555 people waiting more than 13 weeks to 2,946 people waiting to see a consultant to get on to the waiting list.

That is unacceptable, particularly because of the promises that were made to my constituents by my Labour opponent, by Labour shadow Ministers at the time, and by the then Leader of the Opposition, the current Prime Minister. My constituents believed that the promised improvements would happen for them, but sadly, whatever is happening elsewhere seems to be passing them by.

I passionately hope that the Government are successful in getting the waiting list down in mid-Essex. I am sure that Ministers do not want my constituents to wait longer than most other people in the country for hospital treatment, if only because an improvement would shut me up and they would not have to listen to my speeches any more. I am united with them. I want the waiting list down because I do not want my constituents to have to wait so long.

Like the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I hear tales at my surgery and in correspondence, of pensioner constituents of mine having to use their life savings for non-emergency private treatment of painful conditions, because they cannot face the pain while they wait nine months, 15 months or whatever for a hip replacement operation or other treatment on the NHS. It is unacceptable.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are enormously politically partisan and that there has been a vendetta against the home counties? The appalling situation that my hon. Friend describes is shared by my constituency and many others.

Mr. Hinchliffe: Come on!

Mrs. Bottomley: I am amused to hear the hon. Gentleman's merriment. I know that he does not have one in nine people waiting more than a year for in-patient treatment. I know that the figure is only one in 50 in the Prime Minister's constituency. However, there has been a severe deterioration in the home counties because of the squeeze on social services and the changes to the funding formula. The problems in the home counties are very severe indeed. Labour Members laugh or say how successful--

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