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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I speak not from a Back-Bench briefing, but out of personal curiosity. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the Tories were considering the introduction of charging in the NHS. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm or deny that the Liberal Democrats are considering charging as one of the options for the NHS? Yes or no?
Dr. Harris: No. I do not know what part of the word "No" the hon. Gentleman does not understand. I can tell him that we will go into the next election with a commitment to fund the NHS in a fair way that leads to equitable provision of services. Charging is at least a policy, which is more than Ministers have, but it fails in terms of equity. It may provide extra funding in the short term, but it fails to pass the test of giving a long-term future for universal funding and ensuring equity of provision. Charging the sick and elderly to see a doctor is the sort of policy that the Conservatives may consider. I hope that they will reject it, although in a way, I hope that they will not do so. If the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequeror even bothsuggest that Labour Members consider the option, they may do so. However, the Liberal Democrats have reached that point. We have looked at those options and rejected them on the grounds that I have set out. I am sorry if that is a disappointment to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way as he stumbles his way through his fascinating speech. Can he please tell the House whether the NHS is underfunded by 10, 15, 20 or 25 per cent.? He clearly feels that it is a big number, so can he tell us how big it is?
Dr. Harris: Unlike the Conservative party and the Labour party, at election time we provide a costed manifesto, a menu with prices. For example, at the last election we pledged that we would raise the basic rate of income tax by 1 per cent., 1p, to raise additional resources£3.1 billion, to answer the question that was asked earlierfor education. That does not mean that the money already included in Labour's spending plans would be burned by the Liberal Democrats in government.
Whatever the Labour party says it wants to spend on education, we would have spent £3.1 billion more, saying to the electorate that we thought it was necessary and that raising income tax was the fairest way to fund it. That would have meant smaller average class sizes, a fairer way to fund student finances and more provision for nursery education. [Interruption.] That may not, as Labour Members say, be enough, but it is £3.1 billion more than they offered at the last election.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): The hon. Gentleman has slithered away from the issue of funding for the health service and taken the lifeline that was thrown to him by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He argues that Liberal Democrat policy is to view funding for the NHS in the long term, and that their manifestos are always costed on that basis. As the Liberal Democrats know from one election to another that they will never be in government, presumably they have already costed those manifestos. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would therefore be good enough to tell us how much they would spend on the NHS to ensure long-term funding at a level that they feel is necessary
Dr. Harris: The hon. Lady bases her question on a fallacy. [Interruption.] I shall deal with both of her points. She claims that the Liberal Democrats will not be in government. Well, that was said in Scotland, and in Scotland we are in government and, with our partners in the Executive, we are funding our commitment to a fairer system of student finance and our proposals for free personal care. I suspect that if the hon. Lady allowed
The Liberal Democrats are also the only opposition party to deliver an alternative Budget every time the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivers a Budget, so the hon. Lady will not be disappointed. I hope that when the Chancellor reveals his Budget proposals for funding the health service at the Dispatch Box, she will rise in her seat to thank us for publishing our specific alternative plans the day before. I look forward to that moment.
Dr. Harris: No, I want to press on with my speech. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that I have been generous. He will have a chance to speak in the debate, and the less time he spends trying to intervene, the more time will remain for the debate.
The Government, in their panic, have introduced distortions to the health service, and they have done the same in education. The rigidity of maximum infant class sizes has led to disappointment for individual children but no more gains than would have been made by putting resources, which we would have increased, into lowering average class sizes. The Government professed that they wanted more students from poorer backgrounds to go into higher education and then introduced a policy, which they denied during the 1997 election, to make poor students poorer in the hope that it would encourage more of them to enter higher education. We see from the National Audit Office and the Government's own research that that failed and failed miserably. It led to inequity and it goes against what many people felt the Labour party stood for.
On the health service, as the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, he and I and our predecessors pointed out the distortion of waiting lists. They can be cut by simply no longer offering operations, so when uncomplicated varicose vein operations were stripped out of the health service, it reduced the number of people on waiting lists at a stroke. The Conservative party must remember that it introduced the waiting list commitment, which the Labour party foolishly adopted. For the first couple of years, the Conservatives tried to hold Labour to a flawed commitment.
The Government have done better with waiting times, but their fixation with maximums creates distortions in clinical priorities. Managers know that they will be markedperformance appraisedon the number of patients who have waited more than 15 months by the end of next March, regardless of how many intensive care unit beds they have to close to fund the maximum waiting time target and no matter how many patients who urgently need surgery have to be put off so that someone who would otherwise wait 16 months is treated in 15 to satisfy a political priority. The Government do not care, but patients will die as a result of those distortions of clinical priorities and their distortion of practice in A and E departments will have a similar effect.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who has done sterling work. His constituents recognise that he has been active in this area, perhaps more in opposition than in government, but Kent and Canterbury hospital in his constituency is so short of
People no longer talk about the old lady who has waited a long time in the corridor for treatmentthere were five when I visited the hospitalbecause they now refer to the lady in corridor bed A or corridor bed B. That "Milburn memorial ward" is testament to the Government's failure to invest in dealing with delayed discharges. More than 1,000 operations could be done in East Kent, West Sussex and the Isle of Wight if they tackled that problem. If some of the money being paid out for patients from those areas, over the odds in secret contracts with private hospitals in another country, went on tackling bed blocking, they would get through many operations that they feel they need to get through.
On the two-week wait for patients with suspected cancer, the shorter the wait the better, even though evidence-based studies show that it does not reduce mortality from cancer; but if the funding to implement that policy is taken from treatment budgets, people will wait longer for radiotherapy. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) pointed out, people with confirmed cancer will wait longer for further investigation. Patients will die as a result of such a distortion of clinical priorities.