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Dr. Reid: I know that it is difficult for the hon. Gentleman, but will he take this third opportunity to say that he does not believe that the practice is common among NHS staff and that the vast majority of them are decent professionals who are wholly committed to what

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they are doing? It is simple to say; or is he joining the malign attacks by the Opposition on those who work in the NHS?

Mr. Laws: Those are still diversionary tactics. Of course, I am not attacking nurses and doctors—

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is attacking Ministers.

Mr. Laws: Indeed I am. I am attacking the Secretary of State, but perhaps I am not doing it clearly enough. A letter from the Somerset trust stated that it abided by the regulations because they were set by the Department of Health. I am not accusing my local NHS trust of fixing or fiddling the figures. The trust is reporting the figures exactly as the Secretary of State suggests it should. The reporting is entirely consistent with what the right hon. Gentleman wants. Nevertheless, the figures are misleading, because a huge number of people are waiting for diagnostic tests and consultant-to-consultant referrals. Perhaps they are on the planned waiting lists, which, of course, were not set up by people at my hospital but by Ministers. I hope that the Secretary of State will look into that, even though he has only recently taken up his position.

Dr. Fox: Did the hon. Gentleman hear the remarks of the outgoing chairman of the British Medical Association? He said:

It is not NHS staff who are to blame; it is not their integrity that is being impugned but that of Ministers. NHS staff are as much victims of this culture as are the patients.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am certainly not suggesting that people who work in the health service are corrupt. They have to respond to the targeting regime and report information precisely in the manner set down, and daily micro-managed, by the Department of Health. If the Secretary of State wants people to believe in the improvement in public services and in the health service, if he wants people to celebrate the reduction in waiting times, which is occurring in some parts of the country, including my area of Somerset and Dorset, and which I very much welcome, we must ensure that the figures reported by the Government are in line with people's actual experience. At the moment, they are not because we are not picking up the diagnostic waiting lists, the consultant waiting times or the planning waiting times.

Of course there is a whole series of ways in which the present public service targets distort activity and often create priorities that would not be those of the people on the front line. That is the concern, and we see it not only with PSAs, but in many other parts of the public services. We see it in the ear-marked moneys that are handed down by the Chancellor and in his packages that are allocated to capital spending even for schools that have just been rebuilt and have no capital priorities but would like to spend the money on school staff. We see it the class-size limits, which are often welcomed in respect

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of extra resources, but which may lead to pressures on the ground, so that head teachers are forced into arranging schools in a way that they do not believe is best, as I found in a primary school in my constituency this morning. It is there in the micro-management of chief police constables. When I visited the chief constable of the Avon and Somerset constabulary this year, his own local priorities were being dictated by the Home Secretary, not by the police authority itself.

In all those ways, the Government are distorting the delivery of public services, and they think that they know better than people on the front line when they do not. Even in those areas where the Government claim to have a new localism, giving greater autonomy to the public services, that autonomy has to be earned. In other words, the Government presume that they should hold on to power and others have to earn it if they are to exercise discretion. Clearly, that is entirely the wrong way around.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Laws: I will not give way because I have used up far too much time already, although I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an issue earlier.

Earned autonomy is not good enough. The presumption must be that, in a regime where reasonable inspection takes place, the front-line deliverers of public services are trusted to deliver, rather than the Government shackling front-line public services with their own constraints and so-called earned autonomy.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I heard you twice upbraid the Chancellor for criticising Conservative policies. At least we have some policies. I asked the Liberals a few questions about their own policies. The hon. Gentleman has been speaking for more than half an hour. Is it too much to expect that, by the end of his speech, we might hear—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman can safely leave such matters to the Chair.

Mr. Laws: I should be delighted to speak for another half an hour or so to outline Liberal Democrat public services policies. In fact, I suspect that half an hour would not be nearly enough. However, I hope that I have made it clear that we believe, uniquely as a party, not only in the funding that has been absent from this Government's first term and that was so lacking in the Tory party's 20 years in power, but in decentralisation, not the Government's phoney decentralisation—their earned autonomy—not the decentralisation that the Conservative party talked about when in power but did not deliver, but real decentralisation to the front-line delivers of public services. If we can have the additional cash, the reform and the decentralisation, we at least have a chance to deliver the improvements in public services that all of us—at least Liberal Democrat Members—wish to see.

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5.33 pm

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): It is important to recognise that the motion is not about what proportion of targets has been achieved. It is not about the generality of targets or the number of targets. The motion absolutely condemns targets as a concept. It talks about a regret

It talks about them diverting

It is a blanket condemnation of targets as a means of centrally controlling or directing public investment.

As the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said in response to a question from me earlier in the debate, the motion refers to targets being replaced by

In other words, it is saying that the money provided by the Government should be handed over—blocks of it—and the public services should be left to get on with it. That may be reasonable, but we need to judge that assertion against the record of the people who are putting it forward, because the Conservative party has a record. We also need to judge the motion in the context of the Government's economic policy as a whole, because the investment programme in public services is a major part of that overall economic policy. That programme and its achievement depend crucially on some kind of direction of the investment to ensure that what is intended is achieved.

Let me start, therefore, by examining the motion in the context of the record of those proposing it. In 1997, when this Government came to office, there had been 18 years of neglect of public investment, despite the bonanza of North sea oil, which one would have thought could have been the spur to renewing public investment in Britain. Instead, the advantage that that brought was frittered away on tax relief for the better off. While that was being done, health, education and transport were neglected. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) spoke about the fact that the rail transport targets have not been met. It was not appreciated until the Hatfield rail disaster, however, how disastrous the neglect of investment in railways had been for the railway service, and how disastrous it was to compound that neglect with the folly of rail privatisation. It is therefore not at all surprising that we have a more difficult position now than we anticipated—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), who has just walked into the Chamber, that he must not walk directly across the line of sight of the hon. Member speaking and the Chair. I appreciate that he did not realise that, but it is an important point.

Mr. Beard: These things feed off each other. Some of the targets, particularly in transport, have not been met because the consequences of 18 years of neglect had not been fully appreciated.

At the same time as that neglect of investment, the public finances were left in a dreadful mess, with a £29 billion deficit. By what means was that to be paid off? By

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a fuel tax that burdened pensioners in particular. The double whammy of 1997 was therefore a neglect of investment and at the same time a Government deeply in the red. It was fecklessness compounded by incompetence. The economic policy that lay behind that was going nowhere. The recession of the 1980s was followed by the recession of the early 1990s, with an interlude of rampant inflation in between. The strategy for the economy was that a country with some of the most capable and ingenious people would compete with the rest of the world on costs. Our future was to out-sweat the sweat shops of Asia. In a perverse way, I suppose that that explains the Conservatives' neglect of state education and the way in which the universities were allowed to decline so disastrously. Against that background of instability and, at the same time, a lack of confidence in Government competence, lay a lack of confidence in business, not surprisingly, and businesses did not invest.

Let us contrast that position and put it as the background to this motion. It is not a record that instils great confidence in the sense of the motion, but let us give the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Let us also examine it, however, in the context of Government policy, and contrast that with the scene of neglect and economic failure that I have been outlining.

First, priority was given to education and to redeeming a lost generation who had been on the dole for far too long through exercises such as the new deal. That was a declaration that this country's economic future depended on mobilising our skills and abilities, on the higher value that they could create and on competing with the rest of the world through our ingenuity and abilities.

The second main point of the strategy was a recognition that social justice and economic growth were not opposed and that it was not a case of choosing one or the other—they go hand in hand. It was not accepted that we could wait for a magic day when the economy would be right and then start to invest in the health service, education and transport, and put things right in sequence. Public finance and economic management had to be put on an entirely different foundation, and public service agreements form part of that general structure. A restraint on spending for two years to help to put the public finances right—

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