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The Conservatives' problem is that they are ashamed of voting against the NHS in the first place, and of running it down over 18 years when they had the chance to build it. We know what the tactic of the hon. Member for Woodspring is: it is to try to air-brush his party out of history. Not even Joseph Stalin tried that.
The hon. Gentleman should ask for a bit of help from some of his hon. Friends. Take the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is sitting next to him. I wish someone would! According to his CV, the hon. Gentleman is an expert on Mesopotamian
Mr. Blunt: In 1996, a new accident and emergency department opened at East Surrey hospital. Is the Secretary of State proud of his record, given that yesterday that department shut because it was so full of patients on trolleys that it could admit no more patients? It was not open for 999 calls.
Mr. Milburn: Of course there are problems in the national health service: there are bound to be problems. There are problems in Surreywhich, incidentally, is why we have just increased the amount of money going into the Surrey health authority area. There have been years during which the NHS has not had the necessary investment, and has not had the necessary capacity. [Interruption.] Before Opposition Members get too excited, they should remember that when their party was in office the number of nurses and GPs in training remained the same. Now the number is rising.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Perhaps that explains why, when I wrote to the Department about a constituent who had been waiting for 10 months for an investigatory operation relating to her bowel cancer, she was sent a letter telling her how wonderful the cut in waiting lists was. She has now been forced to pay for the operation. What a disgrace! Could the Department not have managed a better reply?
Mr. Milburn: It is true that too many patients are waiting too long for treatment. How will we put that right? I will tell the House how we will put it right: we will put it right by investing more, and introducing reforms. The issue for the hon. Member for Woodspring and his party is this. Are they going to back the investment, and are they going to back the reforms? I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he will do what his hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring has failed to do on successive occasions, and say that the Conservative party would match our spending on the national health service.
Chris Grayling: I want to take the Secretary of State back to his comments about the railways. Can he explain, given what he said about rail privatisation, why the Strategic Rail Authority set up by his Government said in its report
If the hon. Gentleman is proud of that record, he must be the only person in the country who is. The truth is this. The Tories doubled crime; we have cut it. They increased infant class sizes; we have reduced them. They increased hospital waiting lists by 400,000; we have reduced them by 120,000.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can tell us this. If the Railtrack privatisation was so botched, why are his Government proposing to leave Railtrack in the private sector and not to change the structure?
Mr. Milburn: Our policy is extremely straightforward. According to the Tories' policy, what came first were the interests of shareholders. In our policy, the interests of the travelling public come first.
Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Will he confirm that it takes three years to train a nurse, and that this Government have been in power for five? Why are we still short of nurses?
Mr. Milburn: I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is on this planet today but, if he was present for health questions earlier, he will have heard that there are 10,000 more nurses in the NHS this year than last year. Since this Government came to office, moreover, there are 27,000 more nurses in the NHS. The right hon. Gentleman should apply some compare-and-contrast strategies. When he was a member of the Conservative Government, the number of nurse training places was cut, as was the number of nurses.
The Leader of the Opposition says that the Opposition's policy is based on principle. It is certainly based on Tory principles. It starts by talking down the public services. It continues with cutting back resources for the public services. It is completed by selling off the public services. The Tories' policy is the same as it used to be: talk it down, cut it back, sell it off. For 18 years, they had the chance to put in place the necessary investment and reforms, and they failed to do so.
Talking of failure, I turn now to the Liberal Democrats. No doubt the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) will be on his feet shortly, complaining that we did not invest enough, soon enough.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): The Secretary of State is boasting about investment, but does the Government's 10-year plan for the railways mean that they intend to spend more in real terms on the railways each year than did the Conservative Government, or less? It is a straightforward question: more or less?
Mr. Milburn: Over the 10-year period, we are planning to spend more. In the previous Parliament, we spent double what the previous Conservative Government spent in their final Parliament. In this Parliament, we will spend more again. The investment is going in, and needs to be matched by the reforms that we have initiated.
The problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they are all for the investment, but against the reforms. The problem for the Conservatives is that they are all for reform and the abandonment of the public services, but they are not in favour of investing in them.
Dr. Fox: The worst thing about the confusion from which the Secretary of State suffers is his lack of insight. Treasury figures show that managed expenditure on transport as a percentage of gross domestic product totalled 1 per cent. between 1997 and 2001, compared with 1.7 per cent. under the previous Conservative Administration.
Mr. Milburn: Yes, but the hon. Gentleman's fixation with the private sector makes it surprising that he has failed to count both public and private investment. He should recognise the total level of investment going into the railways, and what that total will be. Investment is going in and we shall also harness the skills, expertise and resources of the private sector.
With regard to health, Britain is the only country in Europe where public services receive a bigger share of national wealth. We lag behind other European countries on health spending but the NHS is the fastest-growing health service of any major country in Europe. The hon. Gentleman said that the grass is always greener on the other side and that we should abandon our form of NHS funding and change to the French or German system. The hon. Gentleman should realise from his travels that France and Germany do not have a superior system but a superior level of funding. We are putting that right.
As I said earlier today, I do not regard people receiving treatment abroad as a national humiliation or disgrace but as a way of getting more NHS patients treated more quickly. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was all in favour of choice, as I am. I want patients to have more choice from the NHS. The only difference between patients travelling abroad for treatment and the hon. Gentleman travelling abroad to look at other forms of providing treatment is that at least NHS patients are well when they return.