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1.48 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): The Secretary of State has created a smokescreenof minimalist announcements and reheated old announcements in his attempt to distract attention from the Government's simple failure to address the royal commission report's principal recommendation. There is much worthy exploring and investigating, but nothing of substance. I hope that the Secretary of State appreciates the disappointment that his words will cause those up and down the country who have waited with bated breath for some sign of a Government response to the royal commission report, which has been in the Government's hands for nearly nine months.

Mr. Kirkwood: The hon. Gentleman puzzles me.I have a brief from the Conservative parliamentary resources unit--

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I hope the hon. Gentleman paid for it.

Mr. Kirkwood: I shall happily pay for it--it is a very useful document. It contains a revealing sentence:

Is the hon. Gentleman criticising the Government for that?

Mr. Hammond: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is reading Conservative research department briefs--perhaps he seeks a position in the shadow Cabinet. However, his idea of opposition may be different from mine. We shall develop our policies and put them before the electorate at the next general election. They will be based on our response to Government policies that are outlined at that time. It is no part of our responsibility to develop policies and feed them to the Government to steal from us--just as the hon. Gentleman has acquired that brief by means that we know not.

It is a delicious irony that the Secretary of State, who has come to the House today to defend the Government's inaction in response to the principal recommendations of the royal commission report,

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may be the Treasury Minister who ensured that those recommendations were rejected in the first place. Before the general election, Labour apparently identified long- term care as an area for urgent action. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it identified that as an area to be exploited in the pursuit of votes. In a press release dated 10 March 1997, the then shadow Secretary of State for Health said:

    "We will establish a royal commission which will lead a national debate on a comprehensive review of the care system. Changes cannot be made piecemeal."

I hope that the Secretary of State will bear that in mind as the Government embark, as he has said, on an exercise to cherry-pick the report and dribble out a series of piecemeal changes, as he has admitted they are doing.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): The hon. Gentleman has said that the Government have rejected the main recommendations of the report. There are two main recommendations, one of which they have accepted. They have promised a response on the other within months, so how does he explain his assertion?

Mr. Hammond: Well tripped. When I referred to the principal recommendations of the report, I meant the one concerning funding. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is the key issue being debated in the country and it is of key concern to the 400 organisations that submitted evidence to the royal commission. We must address ourselves to that issue first and foremost.

In a press release dated 25 April 1996, the--now--Secretary of State himself said:

To date, the Department of Health's contribution to fulfilling that pledge has consisted of intervening with taxpayers' money in the Coughlan case to overturn the court decision and re-establish the legal basis for precisely that

    "geographical lottery in community care".

Most laughably of all, in a press release dated 10 March 1997 the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport told the world that by focusing

    "on quality rather than throughput in the NHS we will remove the perverse incentives for hospitals to discharge patients too early".

In office, the Government have sacrificed quality of care and practically everything else on the altar of throughput in an attempt to meet the Prime Minister's waiting list pledge. Far from ending premature discharging, the system of cash bonuses and penalties that they have introduced has encouraged health authorities and trusts to discharge patients early.

Immediately after the general election--in fact, on the first day of the new Parliament--the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), then an Under-Secretary at the Department of Health, gave some pointers to the Government's thinking:

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    He identified at that stage that avoidance of enforced home disposals was a key issue. In the same debate, he said:

    "The previous Government . . . began a process of consultation on insurance provision as a response to the crisis in long-term care . . . We will not go down that road."

He was ruling out in advance any consideration by the royal commission of an insurance-based solution--a policy that contradicts the later Green Paper on welfare reform--which does not seem to have done his career any harm. However, I was interested to hear the Secretary of State apparently ruling insurance-based solutions back into the equation.

The then Under-Secretary went on:

Whether he intended it or not, the Government have given a pretty good imitation of shirking. After the setting up of the royal commission in December 1997 and its reporting in slightly more than 12 months, as it was asked to do, nine months have passed during which the listening audience of 10 million pensioners could have heard a pin drop.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House of how long it took the then Tory Government to respond to the Audit Commission's 1984 report? Was it not an Act of Parliament of 1990, which then took three years to implement, that represented that response?

Mr. Hammond: What I will remind the hon. Gentleman of is the fact that, at the last general election, the Conservative party presented a specific proposal for starting to deal with problems in long-term care. The then Opposition rubbished that proposal, and promised the public an urgent alternative solution. Here we are, two and a half years later, with 100,000 more homes forcibly sold to pay for long-term care; and what has the Secretary of State told us today? He has told us that we shall have to wait another year for the Government's solution.

The former Secretary of State, who presented the royal commission's report to Parliament, indicated that he agreed about the need for an informed debate on the recommendations. Given that he told us in the same statement that the commission had taken evidence from 400 organisations and received more than 2,000 written submissions, had made more than 100 visits and had met 1,000 individuals--all of which had informed its recommendations--I think we are entitled to ask what further debate will achieve, other than providing the Government with a fig leaf enabling them to reach conclusions that are diametrically opposed to those of the commission.

More experienced hands than me, both inside and outside Parliament, instantly recognised in the call for informed debate Whitehall-speak for "Drive it into the long grass, and hope that it gets lost." Ministerial answers to oral and written questions since then have confirmed that view. Typical was a question posed on 6 July by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who humbly inquired when the Secretary of State expected to have concluded the debate. And the answer he received?

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    In other words, "Never".

Even more enigmatic was the Prime Minister's reply to a similar question asked by me on 26 July. He told me:

    "We are considering the Royal Commission's proposals and the reactions to the Commission's report. We will announce our decisions in due course."--[Official Report, 26 July 1999; Vol. 336, c. 30W.]

That prompts us to ask whose reactions were being considered--those of the hundreds of organisationsthat have welcomed the commission's principal recommendation with open arms, or those of the Prime Minister's next-door neighbour.

The truth is that the Government set up the royal commission expecting it to propose a low public spending solution. The Government would then have hidden behind the commission's report, and argued that it had weighed the evidence and reached a proper conclusion. Unfortunately for the Government, however, the commission did not play ball.

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