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27 Nov 2002 : Column 357—continued

Peter Hain: I shall certainly look at the hon. Gentleman's question, because I agree that that is an important aspect of providing a high-quality health service for all the people of Wales.

The Bill is designed to improve the health care targets and areas that it is explicitly set up to deal with. Health Professions Wales will set clear standards at an all-Wales level for the continuing personal and professional development of all sectors of the work force. The Bill will give the body a proper statutory footing. It is an enabling Bill that devolves powers to the Assembly to determine through its own secondary legislation the detail of the new arrangements. That is another example of the truism that the Assembly is a powerful body. It has enormous powers to influence and shape policies as it determines they should be for the needs of Wales.

That is as it should be. The devolved Assembly will work in partnership with the health service in Wales and the people of Wales to determine what is right for Wales. That demonstrates once again that, through the devolution settlement, we can deliver policies adapted to the particular needs of Wales. The Bill follows previous legislation such as the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 and the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002, all of which had specific Welsh clauses. It represents devolution in action and progress through partnership.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for generously giving way again. Given that health inequalities are often income related—to put it bluntly, poorer people are more likely to become and remain ill—will he point to what provision there is in the Bill or will appear subsequently in secondary legislation to tackle that disturbing phenomenon?

Peter Hain: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that income inequalities are a tremendous source of health inequality and are a particular problem in Wales. In valley constituencies such as those that I and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), represent, that is a curse and a legacy of our industrial history. On the help provided by the Bill, the Wales Centre for Health will ensure that those inequalities are monitored and that the policies that are designed by the Assembly and, where necessary, implemented through primary legislation here are tailored to deal with them. Health Professions Wales will also ensure that the professions in Wales are trained to a standard that is sufficiently high to address those inequalities.

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Before I gave way to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I was about to say that I commend the Bill to the House.

5.49 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The debate is important because it gives hon. Members an opportunity to discuss issues that relate to the national health service in Wales. Post-devolution, the ability to ask questions on health is somewhat constrained. That is a pity. Members of Parliament with an interest in Welsh affairs must be aghast at what the NHS has become for far too many people in Wales.

I welcome the fact that the Bill was published in draft. As the Secretary of State said, many observations and comments were received before it appeared in its current form. I believe that we have fewer opportunities to debate issues fully now than when I was first elected 10 short years ago. Most of that change has occurred in the past five long years.

The Bill is another stepping stone in the troubled waters of the NHS that leads to yet more change.

Those statements must ring loud and hollow in Wales. I have used the NHS in Wales. I lived in Swansea for 33 years; my brother worked as an electrician on Singleton hospital when it was built, and my other brother, Anthony, had an operation for cancer at that hospital in January 1998. I cannot pay great enough tribute to the staff at every level who gave my brother back his health. I pay tribute generally to the hard-working staff of the NHS. They work under enormous pressure and constant change.

Our health service has genuine problems, despite the extra revenue that has been earmarked for the service and that the Secretary of State mentioned. Sadly, for far too many people, the extra expenditure is not reaching the right parts to ensure an improved service. Some of the biggest complainers about that miserable fact are those who work in the NHS.

I want to make several points about improving the service for our patients. The retained community health councils, which the Bill covers, will want to consider many deficiencies. Do hon. Members remember the following pledges:

What has gone wrong?

The Labour party could state that the Administration in Cardiff are not technically Labour; they are a Lib-Lab Administration. Technically, that would be correct. The Labour party could therefore try to blame the Liberal Democrats for the awful state of waiting lists in the NHS in Wales. Much as I dislike the Liberal Democrats, that would be dishonest. Although they will have to take their fair share of the blame, the Labour party would not have behaved differently if it had been able to muster sufficient votes to avoid having to rely on the Liberal Democrats to retain power.

Let us consider the size of the problem: 4,335 people have been on the in-patient waiting list for more than 18 months—1,810 more than when the pledge was

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made. In 1999, when the pledge on out-patients was made, 25,676 people were on the waiting list. Today, the figure is 83,443. When we left office in 1997, the figure was 5,956. What would Labour Members say if we had presided over that appalling state of affairs? It is a scandal.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 18 years of total under-investment in the health service led to the current waiting lists? We do not have sufficient doctors and consultants because it takes time to train them, and the Conservative Government were not prepared to do that.

Mr. Evans: I wonder how many more years the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind hon. Members that we are not holding a general debate on the health service in Wales; we are discussing the Bill. It would be appropriate if hon. Members confined their remarks to that.

Mr. Evans: I am answering the Secretary of State's points. I listened to him carefully. The CHCs, which the Bill will retain, will also consider aspects of his speech.

For how many more years must we listen to excuses? The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) has to accept that the Labour party has been in power for more than five years. The statements that the Labour party made during the 1997 and 2001 general election campaigns—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Again, I remind the hon. Gentleman of the parameters of the debate. We are considering the Health (Wales) Bill.

Mr. Evans: Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you know, the Bill deals with the retention of the community health councils, which will consider the aspects that we are discussing. We want to ensure their independence so that they can expose the issues that many hon. Members will doubtless raise today.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): The hon. Gentleman mentioned five years. How long does it take to train a consultant?

Mr. Evans: Part of the problem is retention after training. I have spoken to the Royal College of Nursing, which states that there are 30,000 registered nurses, but that more than 8,000 do not stay in the NHS. The hon. Gentleman also knows that the Government have scoured the world for extra nurses and consultants, yet shortages remain. They must accept that there is a problem.

Mr. Wiggin: My hon. Friend knows that consultants, especially in Wales, have not agreed a settlement with the Government. There is no point in Labour Members shouting abuse when the Government have failed to agree a deal with consultants on funding.

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend is right. The statistics that we use in today's debate have a genuine impact on patients in Wales. People are suffering because of the deficiencies. That is the real problem.

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When I mentioned waiting lists to the Secretary of State earlier, he compared the NHS with an oil tanker and said that it had to be turned around. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) once described the NHS as an oil tanker when he was Secretary of State for Health. Many Secretaries of State have passed under the bridge since then. The NHS now resembles the Spanish oil tanker that has sadly run aground and is currently spilling oil. Something must be done about the waiting list problem in Wales for the sake of all the patients in Wales.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): The hon. Gentleman must acknowledge the distance that we have had to travel in rebuilding the health service. Does he recall that under the Conservative Administration, 70 hospitals were closed, 8,000 general beds were removed from use and there was a 25 per cent. cut in nursing and midwifery training? We have had to travel that distance to start putting things right.

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