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4.46 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The noise, shouting and macho posturing in the Chamber can mean one of two things: either the Conservative and Labour parties are far apart on an issue or they are close together on it. I suspect that when it comes to dealing with the public services, it is the latter, and they are both wrong. They wish to disguise their unwillingness to tackle the issues, to disguise their unwillingness to own up to the cost of funding decent public services, and to disguise their uncritical love affair with the private sector.

Only a fraud or a Labour Minister would claim to be able to save the NHS without significant sustained early extra investment. Only a fraud or a Labour Minister would claim that a headlong rush towards the private sector in many of our public services will not lead to problems of both accountability and value for money.

Mrs. Browning: On the subject of the love of the private sector, why did the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) enclose a brochure on the Nuffield clinic in Plymouth in literature that he circulated to his constituency last year?

Dr. Harris: I know little about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I suspect, however, that I now know more about the weakness of the Conservative unit on the Liberal Democrats, and I hope that I sample more of that weakness during my contribution.

In the 1997 Labour manifesto the Prime Minister wrote:

That will be hard for people who use the public services to take. [Interruption.] If the Secretary of State listens, he will recognise that without putting in the funding early, patients, pupils and others will be let down. In the four years following that commitment, the funding provided by the Government for many public services barely exceeded—if at all—the funding provided by the Conservative party when it was in office. Yet expectations were hugely raised, and it is the failure to deliver on those expectations that has made so many people feel let down.

Dr. Fox: In order to buy the hon. Gentleman some time so that the massed ranks of the Liberal Democrats can come to support him, in terms of early investment, how much was 1p in income tax worth in 1997?

Dr. Harris: If the hon. Gentleman waits, he will hear me happily defend our tax proposals in the 1997 and 2001 elections. It is indeed those proposals and our menu with prices that set us apart from the two conservative parties that are opposing each other in the debate.

One might ask why it matters that expectations were raised when the delivery—if it arrives at all—will be so delayed. It matters because the patients who voted for the Labour party in 1997, believing that it would save the NHS in two weeks, 12 hours, 24 hours or whatever the jargon was, had only one chance of treatment.

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They cannot wait four, five, six, seven or eight years for the Labour party to deliver their health care. Children entering school have only one chance of education and cannot wait eight years for the Labour party to deliver its education promises.

The Government wasted three years by sticking to Conservative spending plans. They said two things—that they would save the NHS and that no one would ever pay more tax under a Labour Government—in 1997. They therefore made two incompatible pledges. We know that they met their pledge to the better-off, but they let down pupils, patients and passengers to meet it, which they should never have done.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): The hon. Gentleman will not know this, but Inverclyde council has submitted a bid for £100 million of public-private funding to make much-needed improvements to schools throughout Inverclyde. The local Liberal Democrats, who are in opposition on the council, opposed that bid, although Mr. Ross Finnie, a Liberal Democrat Member of the Scottish Executive supports it. What is the policy of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament? Do they support that extra funding for schools or do they oppose it?

Dr. Harris: We are happy to say where we stand on the private finance initiative; we do not oppose it in principle, but it must pass tests—[Interruption.] That is what I mean about the uncritical attitude of Labour Members; if the word "private" is mentioned, they are told via their bleepers that they have to back it. Tests have to be met. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) would do better on scrutiny if he asked the people proposing that scheme whether it delivers value for money; whether there is adequate accountability; whether there is adequate risk transfer if it involves private finance; whether there is sufficient flexibility; and whether it will deliver those in the long term. I fear that he does not bother to ask those questions because he has been told from on high that he must support such initiatives. Liberal Democrat Members will always give practical scrutiny to such proposals—[Interruption.] I believe that I have answered that point.

The first three years of the Labour Administration were wasted by sticking to Tory spending plans while our public services went down the pan.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: No, I want to move on.

Those three years were not entirely wasted by them because they were three years of spin; multiple reannouncements of funding and triple counting were used as a disguise for underinvestment. The final year of the Administration's first term, when they recognised that they had not delivered on their pledges, was a year of controlled panic; as they approached the election, there were longer waiting times for patients, poorer education and even more under-representation of poorer students in higher education. We are in the first year of the Government's second term, and it looks like there will be four years of uncontrolled panic, as they settle

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for reannouncements, interference, reviews and micro-management of the NHS as a substitute for early investment.

Mr. Salter rose

Dr. Harris: I can see that the hon. Gentleman, who is clutching a briefing, is desperate to intervene.

Mr. Salter: It is a newspaper. I should have thought that even people in Oxford, West and Abingdon read The Guardian from time to time.

The hon. Gentleman's criticism of the Labour Government for sticking to Conservative spending limits might be valid if—

Dr. Harris rose

Mr. Salter: Wait for it; settle down.

The hon. Gentleman's criticisms might be legitimate if we did not read in The Guardian today that the Liberal Democrat strategy for targeting areas such as Guildford and elsewhere in Surrey involves the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) holding out the prospect of tax cuts. How does that sit fair and square with the tax and spend ideology that the Liberals are now embracing? The one thing that we can guarantee with Liberals is that they will never ever be consistent on any single point of principle.

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman has made a fundamental mistake; he has read The Guardian, not the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Until he reads our policies, he cannot readily criticise them. What separates us from the Labour party is the fact that when we make commitments, we explain how they are funded and go into the election saying how they are funded.

Mr. Rammell: In terms of clarity about how the Liberal Democrats fund their policies, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who said:

Dr. Harris: Before we reject those propositions—I hope and believe that the Conservatives will not do so—we will give the reasons why they are rejected.

Mr. Rammell rose

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman has become excited now that I have answered his question. We approach all these issues—especially important ones such as how we fund the health service—on the basis of pragmatic tests of equity, value for money, accountability, access and so on. As I shall demonstrate—I shall deal with his point—I believe that, while the Conservative policy of charging for the health service is at least a policy—

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): There isn't one.

Dr. Harris: They are thinking about it. It is at least a policy, but it fails many of the tests that I have mentioned.

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[Interruption.] I urge the hon. Gentleman to control himself, as I will scrutinise the policy that he is considering and offer some advice to him.

The threat to the NHS comes not from the Conservative party, which people will never believe to be a friend of the NHS, but from the Government. Most murders happen in the family, and it is the Labour party, which is still believed by many people to have the best interests of the NHS at heart, that may well be sounding the death knell for the future of the health service. Through its failure to deliver, and especially its spin and multiple reannouncements about funding, it is leading many people to believe that a properly funded NHS has been tried and has failed.

The Liberal Democrats argue that the concept of a properly funded health service that is paid for by taxation and is free at the point of delivery is currently failing only because it has never been tried. The health service has not been properly funded. Every time Labour Back Benchers, speaking out of loyalty, or Ministers, sticking to their press briefing, reannounce the funds and give an inflated impression of the money that is available to the health service, they drive a nail into the future of the NHS and its survival as a publicly funded service. Even in The Guardian, there will be people who believe the Government's figures and think that the NHS has been properly funded. That is the real danger. Pretending that the funding has gone in allows people to say "It's just a bottomless pit. The Government have put in a significant amount of extra funding and we are spending as much as other European countries, but we are still failing." It is not the health service that is failing, but the Government: they are failing to be honest about how much is going into the health service.

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