Legislative Programme

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Lembit Ipik: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore claim that the problems to which he rightly draws our attention can be solved without a substantial increase in spending on the health service? If he believes that there should be such an increase, how would the Conservative party fund it?

Mr. Walter: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's presumption that simply throwing more taxpayers' money at it can solve the problem—nor is that the Government's contention. During the general election the Conservative party's consistent position was to spend the money more effectively.

Nothing illustrates the failure in Wales more clearly than the fact that more than 4,000 people have been waiting more than 18 months for their operation, whereas the Government's figure for England is just 10.

The NHS in Wales also suffers from serious staff shortages. It suffers problems of morale and funding. According to the Royal College of Nursing, there are 750 vacant nursing posts in Wales and another 2,000 are needed for the NHS to cope. The NHS in Wales does not enjoy the same benefits as the NHS in England. The NHS plan in England set a target for recruiting 200,000 nurses, while the equivalent plan in Wales set no target at all. Similarly, the £4 million spent by the Government on advertising for recruitment in England has not been extended to Wales, despite the crisis in recruitment. NHS Cymru has started recruiting nurses from overseas to fill the gap in the service. That practice, although useful, does not provide a long-term solution.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what he means by recruitment? The advertising programme was designed to recruit people into training whereas recruitment to hospitals is a post-training matter. There is no difficulty in recruiting people to training in Wales, but that is different from recruiting people who have already been trained. There is a shortage of trained people, largely as a result of the under-investment in training that occurred during the hon. Gentleman's party's period in office.

Mr. Walter: The problem is retention, and I acknowledge that that dates back some time. However, the Government have had four years to address retention of nurses and have failed to do so.

On the question of recruiting nurses from overseas, Mr. Richard Jones of the Royal College of Nursing recently said:

    ``The recruitment of staff from overseas on the current scale is only a short-term solution. The long-term answer is to ensure that we train and recruit enough nurses to cope with the demands and make the NHS a place where nurses want to work, rather than a place, as at present, that many want to leave.''

I do not want to consider the alternative offered by the Conservatives at the general election because that was well rehearsed during the campaign.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): The hon. Gentleman has discussed at length aspects of health policy in Wales but he has not mentioned primary health care. Is he aware that the drift of policy in the Assembly is to try to move resources to the primary level? That will prevent waiting lists from building up, and it is one of the great beauties of what is happening in the National Assembly. That will take time—it is like turning a tanker around—but the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned any of those issues in his speech.

Mr. Walter: I shall come to that; I want to talk about some of the proposals that the Conservative group has made in the National Assembly, some of which relate to primary health care.

The Conservative group in the National Assembly has pledged to restore spending on the NHS capital programme in Wales to £100 million a year—its level under the previous Conservative Government. One of the group's first priorities would be to construct Wales's first dedicated children's hospital at an estimated cost of £25 million—somewhat less than the cost of the new National Assembly building. Welsh Conservatives would offer local health groups the option of taking on trust status, and would encourage them to do so. That would improve the way in which the NHS is organised and operates at a primary level in local Welsh areas.

We would also favour the establishment of an Assembly-supported exceptional medicines fund to ensure that the necessary treatments, such as beta interferon, are always available to Welsh patients who require them. We would also seek the establishment of at least three special surgical units to deal with waiting-list backlogs in north, west and south Wales. In order to reduce waiting times, those units would be dedicated to providing planned operations, rather than being used for emergency treatment.

Julie Morgan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: I am coming to my conclusion, and the hon. Lady may have an opportunity to address my remarks in her own speech. To reduce the problems of bed blocking, we would make greater use of the independent sector for patients who require care but have nowhere to go.

The people of Wales deserve better. In deliberations on the forthcoming Bill, we will seek to ensure that the national health service in Wales delivers better for all the people of Wales. Labour's record over the past four years has been disastrous and appalling.

12.39 pm

Alan Howarth (Newport, East): I do not know whether I fall into the category of ``oldies'' to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State alluded, but for the past four years, I have found myself in an anomalous and frustrating situation. I was elected as Member of Parliament for Newport, East for the first time in 1997, and I was privileged to receive a Government appointment. As it was, however, in a capacity that confined my responsibilities to England, I could not take part in proceedings on Welsh matters as much as I—as a representative of a Welsh constituency—would have wished. I am grateful to you, Mr. Griffiths, for calling me, and am glad to take part for the first time in the Welsh Grand Committee.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State stressed that devolution has not made any less important the role of hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies in this Parliament. We all agree with that. It is excellent that the office of Secretary of State for Wales still exists. Parliament passes primary legislation and creates the fiscal framework, which allows those who are elected to the Assembly, or to local government, to pursue their duties. It is important that the voice of Wales should be heard in debates held in Parliament.

I support devolution because I believe in extending and renewing our democracy through constitutional reform. The recent general election underscored the point that we have some way to go to achieve that. I am pleased that the Gracious Speech shows that the Government have maintained their commitment to Welsh devolution. It states that the Government will provide a regionally elected element in the House of Lords. That raises questions about the dynamics of devolution and the emergent constitutional settlement. Under what electoral system will such regional peers emerge? If the second Chamber is to be at the apex of our elected system of government, what will be its role and its working relationship with other elected bodies? We must analyse and debate such issues.

We should achieve a stable constitutional settlement as soon as we can. It is important that our constituents should understand the respective roles of Parliament, the Government, the Assembly and local authorities. That would assist those bodies to do their jobs. We need a more comprehensible division of labour, although the division will never be absolute as the different elected bodies will always compete for power and will always have a legitimate need to interact. The democratic institutions that serve Wales should learn an appropriate degree of co-operation, forbearance and mutual respect for each other.

The fragile position of local government concerns me, and may be illustrated by Newport's predicament, which arises from the contemptuous and destructive decision taken by Corus to end the proud tradition of steelmaking in Llanwern and south-east Wales. I appreciate the support package that has been negotiated. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State played a crucial role in its achievement. Issues arise over the allocation of resources and whether the package is sufficient. In Newport, we in no way begrudge the lion's share, to use the words of the First Minister, of the resources available for regeneration in Gwent going to Ebbw Vale. The troubles in Ebbw Vale must deeply concern all of us. However, I must question whether the funding that may be available for my constituents will be sufficient once the vouchsafed amounts go to Ebbw Vale. I am immensely impatient for progress to occur so that we can start to use those resources.

It is not as if there has been insufficient time to prepare to address the calamity that has been created. Corus announced large-scale redundancies last summer. Many people expected that it would make further drastic decisions following the turn of the year. Therefore, there has been plenty of time to consider what all that may mean, and what the appropriate response of Government at different levels should be.

Consultants' activities are proliferating, but have not proceeded tremendously far. Of course, it is important that any decisions taken about the use of the resources to assist our constituents should be based on complete information and a clear analysis of the needs and options for constructive response. We must ensure that that does not take undue time. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Ministers will do their best to ensure that decisions are taken so that we can begin to use the resources quickly. Demoralisation is liable to deepen, and economic opportunity may be lost every week and month that we have to wait.

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Prepared 3 July 2001