Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.48 pm

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): I very much welcome the call made by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) for a thorough debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) will hear and will take note.

People have asked me what the Budget tells us about the Labour party and the Labour Government. They ask whether it is an old Labour Budget or a new Labour Budget, and whether it is a throwback or a third-way Budget. I say that it is a Labour Budget. It shows successful management of the economy in the face of an international downturn, commitment to fairness and equity through continued support of children and families, and absolute commitment to public services—not least the national health service, to which all Labour Members, without exception, are committed as a service that is free at the point of use, available to all in need irrespective of their income, and paid for from general taxation. For two thirds of its life—35 of 54 years—the national health service was run by Conservative Governments who did not believe in its values. The Conservatives opposed its formation, the shadow Chancellor recently called it Stalinist, and this evening a former Chancellor described new spending on it as reckless and irresponsible. In 1997, we inherited a damaged NHS. All that held it together was the supreme commitment of its staff and others, and its unique place in the hearts of the British public.

Listening to the hon. Member for Woodspring was an education, and I certainly agree with two of his comments. I am glad that he accepts that a fifth year in opposition is still early days, and I hope that he will have plenty of time to enter into the debate for which the right hon. Member for Horsham has rightly called. The hon. Gentleman also said that he wants a better health service, but the problem is that he does not know what he means by that. We do: a better health service is not just more of the same, but a diverse and flexible service that can provide an appropriate level of service to everyone who needs it, regardless of where they live and of what those needs may be.

Now more than ever, we need such a health service to demonstrate at least three important principles. First, good health provides a huge economic value—a point that has not been picked up on in this debate. The cost to our economy of absence through sickness is about eight times the additional sum that employers are being asked to contribute to national insurance. Reducing the economic

23 Apr 2002 : Column 202

cost of sickness would more than pay those employers, therefore, for their increased contributions. The second principle is an absolute civil right to good health for all individuals and families, and the third is simple: social justice. It is right that a health service be provided nationally, so that people can be treated according to need. To my mind, the national health service is the embodiment of social justice.

Chris Grayling: Can the hon. Gentleman explain how such social justice applies to those of my constituents who, under the national health service, continue to wait months or even years for operations? They survive in pain for long periods, under a system that seems simply unable to deliver improvements. Despite the additional moneys provided by the Government, no improvements have been delivered in the past five years. How can the hon. Gentleman reassure me that the changes in the Budget will deliver improvements for my constituents?

Mr. Levitt: No Labour Member has said that the situation is perfect. We regard the NHS as a glass half full and getting fuller; the Opposition and some in the media see it as a glass half empty, and wish to deride it. I shall discuss later some of the progress that has been made, and which I hope will be made.

We will carry for years the burden of Tory underinvestment in the national health service. Some buildings and working environments are still less than adequate. There is a shortage of many types of specialist consultant—to judge by my postbag, the two that particularly stand out are hip operation specialists and audiologists—and there remains a shortage of mainstream doctors and nurses. However, things are better than the Opposition and the media make them out to be. They have been getting better for the past five years, and they will continue to do so.

Across the country, there are already new hospitals, upgraded accident and emergency departments, and 20,000 more nurses and 6,000 more doctors, with record numbers in training. Tens of thousands of people have, or are about to get, digital hearing aids—a massive breakthrough for them. New standards of care have been established for care homes, along with free nursing care in that sector. Waiting lists and waiting times for in-patients and out-patients have improved, and personal experience has shown me that NHS Direct has been a success. After a telephone call to NHS Direct at half-past 2, I was in a hospital bed by half-past 4. By half-past 6 I was receiving intravenous antibiotics, which I was given for several days. In case any hon. Members are wondering, I can assure them no favouritism was shown. Three days after I was admitted, the nurse said, "Why didn't you tell us you were an MP?"

Mr. Barker: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Levitt: I am pushed for time, but I shall invite the hon. Gentleman to contribute later if I can.

There are open minds in our health service on how and where to obtain health care if it is not available locally. I applaud the NHS for having the imagination to buy in operations from abroad, or from the private sector, where necessary. After all, almost all those who provide private sector health were trained at the public expense. I look

23 Apr 2002 : Column 203

forward to the establishment of contracts that oblige consultants to prioritise NHS work. Someone whom I know was released from hospital on a Wednesday, rather than a Monday, because the consultant did not do NHS work on Mondays and Tuesdays. As a result, that person had to stay in hospital for an extra two days.

I am the first to agree that investment that is committed blindfold may not be worth having. Investment must be targeted and strategic, and give value for money. It must improve services, and where the status quo is not acceptable, it must be replaced by something better. In my Derbyshire constituency, several modest improvements—I describe them as modest because it does not have an accident and emergency unit or a major hospital—have been made. However, Tameside hospital—a major hospital that serves my constituency—is due to be replaced completely in the next few years.

In New Mills, the NHS has established a salaried dentist to make up for the weakness in the dentistry-free market that we inherited. A community dentist is available to residents in Gamesley, the most deprived ward in High Peak. In rural Hope Valley, an innovative healthy living programme is building on previous schemes that provided—among other things—a citizens advice bureau contact in every GP surgery, and which thereby acknowledged that poverty and poor health go together. A couple of years ago, only 45 per cent. of category A emergency ambulance calls met the 8-minute target time; now, 75 per cent. do so. That major improvement in ambulance services is due in no small part to the commitment of ambulance staff.

Like the rest of the country, we have already enjoyed record year-on-year health service spending increases. In the past few weeks, an entire tier of administration has been removed, thereby promising spending that is much more sensitive to local needs. A recent survey of mine confirms that, for three quarters of my constituents, the national health service is the key policy area in which they expect Labour to deliver improvements in years to come. We have made a huge but worthwhile undertaking, on which we must—and will—deliver.

I cannot resist turning to the Conservative party. Anyone who really wants to know what the Conservatives think should turn to "Tory Talk", an anonymous and outrageous parody of a political leaflet that was distributed door to door in the week before the Budget, and which begins with the phrase:

Not a single local politician is mentioned in it—except me, I should modestly point out—and the only national one who is mentioned is the hon. Member for Woodspring. According to "Tory Talk", the hon. Gentleman has no health policies. At least they got that right.

On first looking at the leaflet, the most striking thing is the cartoon, which depicts a patient kicking a doctor in the face. I am sorry that hon. Members cannot see it, and I am happy to pass round the leaflet later. Evidently, that is the Tory attitude to people who work in the NHS. The leaflet's headline is, "New Labour and the Third World

23 Apr 2002 : Column 204

NHS." According to the text, the NHS provides a service that is below even that acceptable in the third world. That is the Tory view of the NHS.

Mrs. Browning: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Levitt: The hon. Lady and I have had many exchanges across the Floor of the House, and if there is time I shall let her intervene later on.

That is an outrageous way to describe the commitment, skill, dedication and success of the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the NHS. It is clear that those who wrote the leaflet have never seen third-world health facilities. I can assure them from first-hand experience that, on seeing such facilities, envy is not the emotion that one feels. What one feels is compassion. I want people in the third world to have some of the dignity, concern and good health to which we aspire for every patient in this country.

Next Section

IndexHome Page