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The Secretary of State for Health (Dr. John Reid): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) on his belated stakhanovite use of the word "patient" six times in the past minute. Unfortunately, for the first 37 minutes of his speech, patients did not feature once. That is indicative of his approach—always on the side of the providers, never on the side of the patients—until at the end of his speech he digs out the peroration written for him by someone, which says, "Mention patients several times."

Secondly, I entirely accept that the hon. Gentleman does not understand every nuance of the Government's policy on, for example, NHS entitlement cards. I find it less explicable that he did not seem to know that the Conservatives were committed by his predecessor, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), to an NHS entitlement and identification card. However, I will let him study that and perhaps he can explain to us next time whether the proposal has been abandoned.

For 38 minutes, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire managed not to notice the elephant in the room. At no stage, even in those last repetitive uses of the word "patient", was it followed by the word "passport". The central policy of the Conservative party, the patient's passport, which received accolade after accolade from his own leader, was not mentioned once in the 38 minutes of his speech. That speaks volumes about the albatross hanging round his neck. He spent 38 minutes trying to hide the patient's passport. Perhaps that is why he did not mention patients.

Finally, I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels, as he said in his opening remarks, that health and education have not been given the priority that the Government promised them and have been pushed to the back of the queue in all our considerations. It is therefore with particular pleasure that I approach the Dispatch Box for the 297th debate on health in this Parliament and for the 64th debate on health in the past 12 months alone. The complete lack of priority will be obvious from the figures.

The truth is that health and education have been given every priority by the Government. That is as it should be, because there are few issues that affect people's lives so directly and so crucially as health, where everyone is potentially a patient—the word missing from the hon.
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Gentleman's speech—and education, where not only parents and pupils have an interest, but we all have an interest as a country.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and I welcome the debate today. For the past few years we have been privileged to be involved in travelling a journey in public services—a journey of modernisation and improvement. Opposition Members, who spent most of their time in government moving backwards on public services, find it difficult to understand the concept of moving forward on a journey of modernisation and improvement. We do not underestimate the challenges that remain. The view to the horizon leaves us in no doubt about the extent of those challenges, some of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire and some of which were not. There are still staff shortages—for example, of radiologists, midwives and nurses. Admittedly, we have 80,000 more nurses than under the previous Government, but we still feel that there is a shortage. Combating MRSA is a big challenge for us.

The hon. Gentleman continually asks us from the Dispatch Box to pursue the search for truth. He should remember the old adage—"When you keep asking for something, be very careful. You might get it." Next week, I will publish a factual history of the increase in rates of MRSA over the past 12 years, and it will make very interesting reading, especially for Opposition Members, who seem to feel that the great increase in MRSA rates occurred under the present Government. As we look to the horizon, we know the great challenges that remain.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): When the Secretary of State publishes those figures next week, will he also publish the Government's plans for bringing the incidence of MRSA in British hospitals down to the levels recorded in the Netherlands and Denmark?

Dr. Reid: Almost every month, we take another step in that direction. I do not pretend, as is sometimes implied from the Opposition Benches, that there is some magic wand that will achieve that. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire seems to be incapable of holding two ideas at the same time. He complains that we have any targets at all, then he complains that the target we have set for MRSA is not ambitious enough. He wants a bigger and better target.

I know that that is not the view of the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who has held a responsible post in government. We may be forgiven for encouraging some of the younger Members on the Front Bench, who have not held such responsible posts, but the right hon. Gentleman knows that these are difficult and complex issues. He is right that there are lessons that we can learn from abroad, as well as lessons that we ought to develop internally in this country. Month on month, we are taking further steps. Next month, we are bringing some of the world's leading scientists to this country in pursuit of research on immunity to MRSA. We are examining a range of measures.

We do not regard the matter as a party political issue, and I thought it was slightly churlish of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire not to mention that
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we invited him and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), the Front-Bench spokesman for the Liberals, to put to us ideas that, if we find that they are practical and would achieve an advance for us, we will willingly adopt. I have never regarded methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus as intrinsically related to either the Labour party or the Conservative party. The figures next week may show that it has crossed party politics.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): On further steps to deal with MRSA infections in our hospitals, will the Secretary of State look again at the way in which the Government collect the statistics? They collect them on a hospital by hospital basis rather than on a specialty basis, in order that decisions can be made about targeting particular problems in particular hospitals. Is it not time to produce specialty-level data so that we can start to target the problem more specifically?

Dr. Reid: We will look at all these matters. We will examine whether collecting data hospital by hospital is sensible, or whether we need to identify particular areas within hospitals where the vulnerable are and operations are carried out. It is a cruel deceit to pretend that it will not be a continual struggle. When I said that within roughly three years I wanted to halve the rate of MRSA, I did not propose that as a ceiling; that is a floor. I hope that we can make more progress, but for the sake of some party political populist slogan, I am not prepared to pluck any target out of the air and demand that it be accomplished. That is not responsible politics.

Looking forward, we can see huge challenges ahead in our attempts to improve and modernise the national health service. However, the retrospective view from the point that we have reached leaves me and most objective observers in no doubt about the significant progress that we have made so far on that journey of improvement.

Mr. Lansley: The Secretary of State knows that the measures that I outlined to the House are a subset of those that I have suggested to him should be undertaken in the fight against MRSA infection. If he did not pluck a target out of the air, will he tell the House where the evidence base is for his assertion that by 2008 the NHS should aim to halve the current rate of MRSA?

Dr. Reid: It is not an assertion in the sense that I am saying that that is where we will be without a shadow of a doubt. A target is just that—an aim and objective. Where did I get that target? I got it on official advice as to what would be possible if we continued to combat MRSA. The advice was that, within three years, with the measures that we have now taken in our continual struggle, it would be possible first to stop the growth of MRSA, which has happened under both Governments, then to achieve a decline, and then a decline of significant proportions. That was done in the way in
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which any Minister would do it. It was done after consultation, discussion, testing and inquiry from officials.

Mr. Lansley: Publish the evidence.

Dr. Reid: The evidence on what? What evidence does the hon. Gentleman want me to publish?

Mr. Lansley: If the Secretary of State has received advice based on evidence about what measures will be taken to deliver the specific target, he can publish it. As he knows, there has been a string of reports, including the chief medical officer's report in December last year, which did not propose such a target or suggest that there was a particular path for the reduction of MRSA infection. The point that we are making is that the target may prove not to be challenging. The chief medical officer set out how a search and destroy strategy achieves substantially lower levels of MRSA infection. We need to know what the Secretary of State intends to do that he believes will deliver his target, as distinct from any other.

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