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House of Commons

Wednesday 17 October 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.



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Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Rural Housing

1. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): What discussions he has had with the First Secretary on the provision of rural housing in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [4190]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have regular meetings with the First Secretary to discuss a range of issues, including the provision of housing. Rural housing has been and continues to be a high priority for the National Assembly. The Assembly aims to develop thriving rural communities, with everyone in Wales having the opportunity to live in good-quality, affordable housing and being able to choose where they live and to decide whether buying or renting is best for them and their families.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. He will know that there is a crisis in rural housing in Wales, and that the crisis has become something of a politicised subject. May I ask him, respectfully, to work with some of his noble Friends, with other Labour party members and with all the political parties in Wales to build a consensus, so that we can produce proper and lasting answers for the people of Wales? If we fail them, we all, as political parties, fail them.

Mr. Murphy: I have no problem with what the hon. Gentleman has said. Our rural communities in Wales are represented by Plaid Cymru, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party, all of which I think, have in mind the same solutions for rural housing in Wales. The Assembly has also taken very vigorous action on the issue, providing £18 million for social housing in rural Wales. Additionally, Homebuy is a low-cost housing scheme, and local authorities in Wales are identifying affordable sites for local people. I therefore agree with the hon. Gentleman on the issue.

NHS Waiting Times

2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on NHS waiting times. [4192]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the First Minister to discuss the NHS in Wales. The subject of waiting times is of course often on the agenda.

Mr. Amess: Now that we are in the fifth year of this appalling Government, is the Minister aware that the number of patients waiting for in-patient or day-case

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treatment has increased from more than 6,000 to 9,385? It is a staggering increase. Who does the Secretary of State for Wales blame for that disgraceful increase?

Mr. Touhig: The increase in the number of in-patient and day cases is 779, not the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave. Clearly, however, the Government are disappointed by the increase, and that disappointment is shared by my colleague the Assembly Secretary, Jane Hutt. Disappointment, however, is not enough: we must do something about it. The Government are doing something about it. We are putting extra funding into the national health service: £35 million extra this year to ease waiting times and emergency pressures, on top of the £40 million that was put in last year. Additionally, there is a further £3 million to increase bed capacity, and £12 million to help reduce orthopaedic waiting lists. All those public expenditure increases are opposed by Conservative Members.

Ultimately, resources alone will not be enough; reform of the health service is also necessary. When the Government introduce measures shortly to reform the health service, I hope that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and other Conservative Members will support them.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Now that the Government have given the country the opportunity, with devolution, to embark on different policies—both in the health service and in other services—in different parts of the country, what efforts are the Government and the Assembly making to compare and contrast the efficacy of the various policies on either side of the Severn and on either side of the border between Scotland and England?

Mr. Touhig: A joint ministerial committee composed of Health Ministers from the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations will meet on Monday. There is a continuous dialogue between the Government and the devolved Administrations to ensure that we have one objective in mind: improving health care and the health service across the United Kingdom. As a result of devolution, there are of course different roads on which we shall travel to achieve that objective. Our objective, however, is the same.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Ulster Unionist Members welcome the concept of reform of the health service. Has the Minister discussed with his colleagues in Wales the possibility of using some of that extra money to purchase provision in Germany and France, where they seem to be able to provide the operations that we cannot?

Mr. Touhig: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course, decisions on patients being treated in other countries in the European Union are initially a matter for clinical referral. They then have to be supported by the health authority that has to provide the funding, and they also require the support of the Department of Health. Discussions are taking place between the Department of Health and the devolved Administration in Wales on that matter.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The Prime Minister told public service workers yesterday that, despite the international situation, he would continue with his reforms

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to improve public services. We all want to see such an improvement, but let us consider the facts. In 1997, some 101,000 Welsh residents were waiting for a first out-patient appointment, but on 31 August this year 203,000 were waiting. In 1997, some 28,000 people were waiting for more than three months, but on 31 August 135,000 were waiting. All the Minister can say is that he is "disappointed". Those are appalling figures. Will the Minister meet the Secretary of State for Health to discuss what action needs to be taken now to turn around those figures and improve on the 1997 levels?

Mr. Touhig: I must congratulate the hon. Gentleman on reaching his Front Bench position. A boy from the valleys is on the Front Bench—if it is not the Welsh valleys, at least it is the Ribble Valley. We need to put in resources and to reform the health service. We recognise the difficulties and that we are not achieving the targets that we want to achieve. However, it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman's party would support the Government when we introduce measures to increase health spending and reform the health service to achieve the goal that we all share—to improve the national health service in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Before too long, he will have a chance to support from the Front Bench the Government's proposals for a health Bill for Wales. I hope that I can count on his backing.

Mr. Evans: I thank the Minister for his initial remarks. The chilling statistics hide the personal pain of those on the waiting lists. Yesterday, we heard the story of an 88-year-old lady, Violet Lee, who was left for more than 30 hours on a Cardiff hospital trolley. The sick pensioner was among a number of patients forced to wait hours for treatment in the emergency unit of the University of Wales hospital. She also had to wait more than 29 hours for a hot meal. One Pontypool GP I spoke to yesterday, Dr. Greg Graham, said that the situation was getting worse and expressed his frustration. It is little wonder that there has been an 11 per cent. increase in complaints by patients in Wales and that a survey of GPs released today showed that one in four wants to quit the profession. An increasing number are also going private for acute care. I ask the Minister again to meet the Secretary of State for Health and report back to the House on what new measures he will take to halt the rot for the sake of patients in Wales.

Mr. Touhig: I have every sympathy with the lady the hon. Gentleman mentions. No one should have to wait in the circumstances that he describes. However, as I said earlier, it is by putting in resources and reforms that we will make changes. I appreciate the comments from Dr. Greg Graham. I know him well and he is a strong advocate of improving the health service. However, I note also that the overwhelming majority of GPs questioned in the survey the hon. Gentleman mentioned believe that patient care has improved in the past five years. The Government have a good record on which to build and we are improving on that. As I said earlier, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give us his support, when he gets the chance, in putting those resources and reforms in place to improve the health service.

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