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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The Prime Minister has alluded to defence expenditure. How can the Government introduce a cut in defence expenditure of £500 million a year after he has taken the country to war five times in six years?

The Prime Minister: Defence spending is rising in real terms for the first time in many years. As we are declaring the contrast between the two parties, some of us remember defence cuts of 30 per cent. when the hon. Gentleman's leader was in office. We will therefore take no lessons in support for our armed forces from the Conservative party.

Secondly, as well as preserving stability, we must continue the investment in and reform of public services. Let us never forget that in the years before we came to power, hospital waiting lists rose by 400,000. Over six years, that has been reversed—they have fallen to their lowest level for over a decade. In 1997, for example, 30,000 people were waiting for more than 12 months—now the figure is 114; 118,000 were waiting over nine months—and now it is 42,000. By mid-2005, we will

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have a maximum waiting time of six months, and by 2008 that will be down to three months. In 1997, we inherited 70,000 out-patients waiting more than 26 weeks—now the figure is 700. The Leader of the Opposition says that we have wasted money, but that is where the money has gone. It has gone into 55,000 more nurses; 14,000 more doctors; 24 major new hospitals; 180 accident and emergency departments that have been or are being modernised; the NHS Direct helpline, which takes half a million calls per month; 42 walk-in centres; 23 diagnostic and treatment centres; 300,000 more operations a year; almost a million more elective admissions; cancer deaths down by 10 per cent.; and heart disease deaths down by 23 per cent. Yes, there is a long way to go, but let no one pay any attention to the Conservative party's campaign claiming that nothing has happened in the past six years, because it simply is not true.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will the Prime Minister tell us why his Government are running down and partially closing the cancer centre at the Kent and Canterbury hospital—the first cancer centre in a generation to be threatened in this way?

The Prime Minister: We are improving cancer services throughout this country—[Interruption.] Yes, there will be changes in the service. We are putting almost £600 million into cancer in this country. The number of cancer deaths is down by 10 per cent. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members talk to people in cancer services, who will tell them that they are improving as a result of the extra investment.

We know what the strategy of the Conservative party is. The new Conservative chairman outlined it a short time ago. These are chilling words for the country to remember:


He is right there. Foolishly, however, the Conservative party has made a specific policy commitment—that patient's passport is an iniquitous proposal that will subsidise people to go out of the NHS but only to the tune of 60 per cent. of the cost. The other 40 per cent. must be paid by the patient. It is not just the unfairness and the dead-weight cost that would rip more than £1 billion out of our health service. It is not a policy that is designed to improve the health service, but one that would allow a small number of people to escape it. That is typical of Conservative policy and would simply take this country backwards. Pensioners and others would have to pay 40 per cent., and the cost of some operations would run into literally thousands of pounds for those people.

Mr. Howard: If the Prime Minister affects such anger at that, how can he condone the fact that the number of people without any kind of private medical insurance at all, and who leave the health service and pay for their own operations because they are so appalled at what they find, has tripled under his Government from 100,000 to 300,000 a year?

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The Prime Minister: I do not believe that people are appalled at what they find in the national health service. The reason that we have been able to reduce waiting times—every single one to below what we inherited—is because of our investment. There we had another typical example. The right hon. and learned Gentleman stands and says that the national health service is failing people in this country. That is simply not true. The fact is that he wants to tell people the health service is failing because he does not believe in it, never has believed in it, and wants to get rid of it.

On the issue of schools, again the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that we have made no progress at all, but this is what the chief inspector of schools said a few weeks ago when discussing schools policy:

The Ofsted report went on—this is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman should remember, because it offers a contrast to what used to happen—to say:

got those results. Now, three-quarters get the right results. That is what delivery is about for people in this country.

We are increasing nursery provision and expanding sure start, with 400,000 children benefiting. Yet again, if we want a sign of what would happen if the right hon. and learned Gentleman got his hands on power, the Conservative party has consistently refused to support the sure start programme. It delivers an immense amount of benefit to people. There are 200,000 modern apprenticeships. We know, however, that we have to do more. Education through life is now the key.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister: In a moment.

The vast bulk of the jobs of the future—certainly those with career prospects—require higher degrees of skill and learning, so we have to give greater access to higher education and skills and fund it fairly. I believe strongly that the proposed reforms on university funding are vital for the future of this country. They are vital to keep Britain at the top economically and not to put all the burden on the general taxpayer; they are vital to open access to university education for more and more children; and they are vital to preserve and enhance our universities as a great British asset. I believe that it is essential that we carry this through.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) (Con): Does the Prime Minister recall the all-party support for the Dearing's committee report on higher education a few years ago? Does he agree that it would be better to continue with the policy of all-party support for these important reforms that the Government are now implementing?

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The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has long experience in these matters, for those sensible words. We all agree that universities need more money and, at least on this side, we believe that the idea that we have too many people going to universities or that there is some limit on how many students should go on to higher education is elitist nonsense. Many countries have 50 per cent. or more young people at university.

One thing is for sure—we cannot raise all this money from the general taxpayer. Over the past 25 years, with rising numbers of students, funding per student in this country has halved. That is simply unsustainable. Our proposals would abolish all up-front fees—no family, middle class or poor, would from then on be asked to find money for fees— they would ensure that repayment occurs on graduation; they are more generous than the present loans system, and payments would be linked to ability to pay. For example, someone on £18,000 a year would pay just £5 a week, not £13 as at present. As Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, said:

I think we should at least pay heed in this House to his words.

Mr. Salmond: Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister: In a minute.

Of course, there are two alternatives—

Mr. Salmond rose—

The Prime Minister: I shall give way in a moment.

There is the Liberal Democrat alternative. The Liberal Democrats agree that universities need more money, but all of it is to come out of a 50 per cent. top rate of tax. Some time previously, I totted up for the House their 70 spending pledges. They now have an alternative Queen's Speech with 40 measures, 34 of which are spending commitments. It is fair to say that there are very large sums of money, but nothing is too small for a spending commitment. This one in particular caught my eye the other day: spending on

A fresh one just in from the Lib Dems is compulsory cod liver oil for everybody in England.

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