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

Dr. Palmer: No, because I want to move on to discuss the Budget itself. Whereas the Opposition Front- Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), dwelt for about 20 minutes on the number of pages in the Budget and on gossip about how Ministers get on with each other, I would like to address the content of the Budget.

The central feature of the Budget is that, for the first time in many years, adequate provision is foreseen for the health service. Strikingly, that was not addressed at all in the Opposition spokesman's introductory remarks. It was not as if he was in favour of it or against it; it simply was not addressed at all because he was too busy counting the number of pages in the Red Book. In the real world, there is broad consensus that however one organises the health system, funding for health in Britain is inadequate, and has been for many years under different Governments. We all know the reason why; until recent years, the economy has been in such a parlous state that successive Governments have been unable to provide adequate funding.

I am proud that we are now in a position to change that, but I note that the Opposition are unsure of their position. We are promised that at some time in the future they will say whether they support or oppose the

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commitment, but for the time being they are Delphic on the subject, which is why they concentrate on counting pages instead of looking at content. I have talked to my constituents about the impact of the Budget, but I have yet to meet one who wants to know how many pages are in the Red Book. I have yet to hear a constituent raise any of the issues raised by the Conservative spokesman. Again and again, people tell me, "At last we have a Government who are taking health seriously." Of course they have reservations—we should be open about this—about whether the money is really going to the NHS. After many years of frustration and disappointment, people naturally wonder whether we are really going to put the money in.

There is a political difficulty, which we all know about. There are thousands of hospitals in Britain and hundreds of thousands of people employed in the health service. It will always be possible—whether in three, eight or 100 years' time—to find a hospital somewhere in Britain where a mistake has been made or a problem has arisen, which Opposition spokespeople will use as an opportunity to show that the system is not working and the money has not produced results. They will do so, as the Opposition Health spokesman has said, to try to demolish public confidence in the health service so that they can introduce an alternative, even though they do not know what it is.

In the real world, people do not share that priority; they want our initiative to succeed and recognise that the Opposition do not want it to, which is one reason why the Opposition's response has so far failed to command interest, let alone support.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): Imagine a major business suddenly telling the hon. Gentleman, "We are going to spend £40 billion on developing our business. We don't know how we are going to spend it or even if we can spend it. We haven't worked out what we are going to do." Does he think that that business would be a great success for Britain? Is that an effective way of planning investment and spending?

Dr. Palmer: The hon. Gentleman's remarks seem to relate more to the way in which the Conservative party's finances are run than to the NHS. As he will be aware, the NHS plan was agreed by all the major bodies involved and commands widespread support. If he wants to highlight specific elements of the plan and discuss whether we can achieve them, we could obviously have a reasonable dialogue. I was sorry that his hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham attacked the individual objectives set by the Government and the alleged failure to achieve them. Those of us who have worked in management—I suspect that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) has—recognise that if we do not set objectives we will not know if we have succeeded and will not be able to track progress. I welcome the fact that the Government have set themselves tough targets. Sometimes an individual target will not be met. We must have a serious dialogue about that, rather than picking up on the failure as if it were a hostage to be burned at the stake for political advantage.

Mr. Bercow: The position is even worse than I described. Not only have the Government set targets and in many cases failed to meet them, but in important respects where people could legitimately expect targets to be set, they have not set them. Is the hon. Gentleman

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sanguine about the fact that the Government have no public service agreement target for the reduction of bed blocking, for the reduction of the number of cancelled operations, or for the increase in the number of beds in the care home sector?

Dr. Palmer: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue, as I have discussed it in some detail with my health authority. I am somewhat inhibited by the fact that we are discussing the Budget, so I am not sure whether you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will allow me to go into detail. Briefly, the health authority in my area says that bed blocking in the sense in which the hon. Member for Buckingham means it—inadequate funds—is not the key issue. The key issue is finding suitable accommodation with which patients are happy. That is not a financial issue, the health authority says. It is a matter of providing intermediate care in the hospitals. The health authority very much welcomes the additional funding that is coming through for that.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Does my hon. Friend agree that although we have been arguing about numbers for the past few minutes, the essential difference between the Government and the Conservative Opposition is that the Conservatives cannot commit themselves to an NHS free at the point of use for everyone?

Dr. Palmer: My hon. Friend is right. It is possible that one day the Conservatives will re-commit themselves to that—

Mr. Harris: But they are not doing so now.

Dr. Palmer: Indeed. Until now the Conservatives have always said through gritted teeth that they were willing to finance a national health service free at the point of use. They have not said that they were willing to finance it well, and we know from their period in government that they are not, but they have been willing to finance it on some basis. It now appears that that is not the case. That is a matter of grave concern to people out in the real world.

Let us return to the Westminster world, where we all feel at home and where we debate our points of order and our points of sophistry at our leisure. Another aspect of the Budget that has received widespread support is the commitment to a reduction in duty for combined heat and power, the reductions on methane and the support for green vehicles. The recent reports from the Cabinet Office on the future of energy expenditure in Britain make it clear that if we want to make significant progress within our lifetime, we must start now. We cannot delay.

I welcome the fact that the Chancellor has opened his doors to representatives of each of the industrial groups developing alternatives to the standard petrol engines, to encourage faster development. I welcome that not just because of the impact that it will have in Britain but because if Britain takes a lead in this area, we are likely to have an export market that will dwarf many of our present markets.

On my next point, I declare an interest: I advise my former company, Novartis, which is a multinational company involved in pharmaceutical research. The

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proposals to aid research in Britain are welcome, as they reinforce Britain's position as a science base. We cannot underestimate the importance of those proposals because, in the long term, the profile of the British economy will depend on whether we have that significant research base.

It is entirely possible that we could give up Britain's traditional scientific advantage and concentrate on call centres, insurance services and other traditional or not so traditional activities by which we could make a living in the world market. However, if we want balanced, long-term development that will benefit Britain not only under this Government but under any future Government whom we might imagine in our nightmares, that scientific base is essential, so I very much welcome those proposals.

I want to allow other hon. Members to speak, so I wish to make a final point on the Budget. I very much welcome the attempt to cut the illegal use of rebated fuel. Those of us who watched the fuel protests will have been struck by the large number of farmers who drove around on motorways and elsewhere, and many of us wondered whether they conscientiously siphoned out their rebated fuel before setting out. During the Select Committee hearings, Conservative Members attempted to find out which class of people were affected. The answer, of course, is the criminal class. That is the class of people who misuse rebated fuel for the purpose of making a profit.

I have a query for Ministers about whether it makes sense in the long term to have what is in effect a subsidy for farming through rebated fuel and whether it would not be better to have a market rate for that fuel and support farming by other means, possibly those that would attract match funding from the European Union. In the longer term, with our new Labour attachment to market mechanisms, it probably makes sense to move red fuel back towards the market rate, especially as we are trying to reduce the overall impact.

In concluding on that technical note, I should like to welcome the positive and focused nature of the Budget. To those who say that people on the street are horrified and alarmed by the one percentage point increase in national insurance contributions, all I can say is that the feedback that I have had from everyone I have spoken to in my constituency suggests that if that increase delivers the goods—the health service for which people hope—they will be hugely relieved, pleased and looking forward to a better future.

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