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8 Jan 2003 : Column 185—continued

1.8 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn) : I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:


The Government's programme of improvement for the health service, including our proposals for NHS foundation hospitals—

Mr. Bacon: Has failed.

Mr. Milburn: We have not quite got NHS foundation hospitals yet. I know that it is early in the new year, but the Opposition should give us a month or two. Our programme of improvement sets out how best we can get resources and reforms working in tandem to deliver better health care for patients. That is not why the Opposition called the debate today. They are not interested in supporting reform of the national health service, because the Conservatives, as the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) confirmed today, are no longer interested in keeping the national health service. That is why the hon. Gentleman, in his little secret speech to the Conservative party conference in Harrogate last year—at his fringe meeting, where he thought that no one was listening—set out the Conservative strategy, which he described as threefold. Its aims were to persuade the public, first, that the NHS is not working; secondly, that it has never worked before; and thirdly, that it will never work. That strategy is not his alone, but that of the whole Conservative party. Presumably, that is why, according to the 28 December edition of The Independent, the Leader of

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the Opposition has told colleagues to search out another case similar to that of Mrs. Addis, which was raised last year, to prove that the NHS is failing. Whatever our differences of opinion about health care and health services, NHS patients are there to be treated, not used. Frankly, seeking to use NHS patients in such a way is the lowest form of political discourse.

Mr. Andrew Turner: My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition does not have to ask us to search out such cases, because the people affected come to our constituency surgeries every week. They include the resident in my constituency who had to wait 26 weeks for radiotherapy following a mastectomy. There is also the fact that everyone in my constituency who wants to get on to an NHS dental list has to travel to the mainland, despite the promises made by the Prime Minister to the Labour party conference in 1999 that within two years everyone would be able to get a dentist. While the Secretary of State is throwing so much money at the health service, why is he still making promises that he cannot deliver?

Mr. Milburn: I should like to make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, I understand his concerns about his constituents, which are shared in all parts of the House. Of course, there are many problems today in the national health service. That is absolutely true. Indeed, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the NHS plan from the Dispatch Box, there was much criticism and some mirth about the fact that it was a 10-year plan. It was a 10-year plan because it will take 10 years to put right the national health service and we should be candid and honest about that. There are problems in the national health service, but progress is under way, and he would do well to acknowledge the progress that has been made, not least because it has been brought about by hard-working members of staff not only in his area, but in all parts of the country.

Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman genuinely believes that there are problems in the national health service, perhaps he could explain to his constituents why he believes that cutting public spending on it would improve matters. Conservative Members must be the only people in the country who think that they can get more out of the national health service by putting less in.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of not improving the health service is to propose, as those on the Opposition Front Bench now do, to cut expenditure on health by 20 per cent.?

Mr. Milburn: I do.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Tell it again.

Mr. Milburn: I will tell my hon. Friend, the hon. Gentleman and the House, as will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, until they are sick and tired of hearing it, that public spending cuts cannot deliver public service improvement. We had 18 years of cuts in the national health service and five years between 1992 and 1997 in which capital spending on its buildings and

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equipment was cut every year, not only in cash terms, but in real terms. Why do we have today the biggest hospital-building programme that the national health service has ever seen? It is there for a simple reason: we have made the PFI work and we are putting extra investment into the NHS.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the use of individual cases to attack the NHS. He will accept that Opposition parties will do that, as his party did very effectively when it was in opposition to show that the NHS was not working. Are not two issues important in that context? First, there should be clear knowledge that the consent of the patient who is cited has been sought. Secondly, it must be recognised that individual patients' experiences tell us nothing much even about the hospital in question, let alone much about the health service. We rely on the provision of adequate statistics in which we can have faith. I hope that he will address the concerns expressed by the National Audit Office and others that statistics are systematically falsified in an attempt to meet his targets.

Mr. Milburn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's points about individual cases. I think that both his party and mine responded positively to the British Medical Association's invitation last year, following the Rose Addis case, that we exercise some discretion in relation to such individual cases. I am not sure that that is true of the Conservative party, but if the hon. Member for Woodspring wishes to confirm from the Dispatch Box that he is prepared to exercise such discretion, I am sure that the BMA would, like me, be delighted to hear him do so.

On statistics, it is obviously important that there is integrity in the collection and presentation of figures. We have done much in that regard. For example, there is more open publication of information about NHS performance than ever before. That includes information about the individual performance of hospitals, primary care trusts and GPs' surgeries and better assessment than ever before of how performance is improving or changing across the national health service. To ensure that that is possible, we have introduced independent inspection through the Commission for Health Improvement, and we hope to strengthen that through the new Commission for Health Care Audit and Inspection. I do not think that it is reasonable to say that we have somehow not introduced precisely the safeguards for which the hon. Gentleman asks.

Mr. Tom Harris: My right hon. Friend may have read over Christmas an article by the Leader of the Opposition in which he said that the Conservative party's aim was to make it completely irrelevant whether a hospital was publicly or privately owned. Does he agree that that might go some way towards explaining why the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has described the Conservative party's chances of winning the next election as about high as those of finding an Eskimo in the desert?

Mr. Milburn: I shall come to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) later in my speech, which has

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a special section that is dedicated purely to him and some of his important utterances. I read his interview, but not the article written by the Leader of the Opposition.

Dr. Fox: To get back to reality for a moment, if the Secretary of State needs to answer any question today, it is as follows. The Labour party has now been in office for six years. Health spending has risen by more than 20 per cent. in the past two years. The Prime Minister says that health care is about hospitals, which are the priority. How can it be that a 21.5 per cent. increase in funding in the health service has been translated in the hospital service into an increase in activity of only 1.6 per cent., as measured by the standard measure of finished consultant episodes, and that the number of admissions fell last year? How can those things be?


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