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Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply. He will be aware that over the past 15 months, Welsh consultants have not been paid for the extra shifts that they are having to work due to the failure to implement new contracts. Is it any wonder, therefore, that there are twice as many empty consultant posts in Wales as in England? Surely the situation is unfair, so how does he intend to resolve it?
Mr. Hain: There has been a dispute with consultants, but we hope that it will resolve itself sooner rather than later. May I just remind the hon. Gentleman of the facts? There are now 350 more whole-time equivalent consultants than when we came to power in 1997, along with 5,000 more qualified nurses, as a result of which the health service in Wales is improving. Nearly 190,000 more patients are being seen in Welsh hospitals than was the case under the Conservatives and we are performing many more operations. The health service is going from strength to strength with its budget doubled. The Conservatives would attack the health service, and privatise and charge in the way in which they always wanted to doif they win the election, they certainly will do so.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): When the North Wales clinical school opened in Wrexham in January this year, I had the opportunity to discuss with trainee doctors the fact that they were training in north Wales for the very first time. They were complimentary about the National Assembly's policies on bringing forward training for doctors in north Wales. Will the Secretary of State speak to the National Assembly to try to extend that initiative in north Wales to nurse practitioners and other medical staff in the NHS so that the increased provision that is going into the health service can be reflected by more training for medical professionals in north Wales?
I will certainly do so. That just shows how, under Labour, investment in the health service is producing better quality. Since we came to power, the number of medical and nursing students in Wales has doubled and it continues to increase steadily. By 2008,
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Wales will be producing 360 medical graduates a year, which can be compared with the situation under the Conservatives when we were starved of training places for both nurses and other medical staff.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Will the Secretary of State break with tradition and give me a straightforward answer to a straightforward question? Why is it that so many people from Ynys Môn have to travel three and a half hours to access NHS dentistry in Barmouth in my constituency?
Mr. Hain: There has been a serious problem with dentistry, but it is a result of the problems that we inherited, which we are trying to put right. [Interruption.] No, no. We did inherit a serious problem: the Conservatives closed two entire dental schools. As far as Ynys Môn is concerned, over the past two years, 10 new dental practices offering NHS dentistry have opened throughout Wales and 26 practices have expanded their NHS dental provision. The number of NHS dentists in Wales has increased by 168, or a fifth, over recent years. Increasingly, we will see more NHS dentists provided under Labour in Ynys Môn. However, if the people of Ynys Môn follow the hon. Gentleman's lead and vote for the nationalists, they will get a Conservative Government and we will see health cuts all over again.
Lembit Öpik: With the Labour party in power in Wales and Westminster, the right hon. Gentleman must accept that it has become virtually impossible to access NHS dental provision in Wales. When the Liberal Democrats form the Government of this country on 6 May 2005, we will fix the problem, working with the Assembly. Since the Secretary of State for Wales has had the chance to fix the problem but has failed to do so, why should anyone believe that a re-elected Labour Administration will prevent the effective privatisation of NHS dental services in Wales?
Mr. Hain: All I can say is that with two Liberal Democrat MPs in Wales, the hon. Gentleman has a long way to go to achieve his objectives. A vote for the Liberal Democrats in key Labour-Tory marginal seats across Wales and Britain will put the Conservatives into power through the back door. That is why Labour supporters and every fair-minded person in Wales should vote Labour on 5 May.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The Secretary of State just told the House that the health service in Wales is going from strength to strength. Can he now tell us why GP registrars have not had the pay rise they were promised in May 2004?
They certainly would not get any pay rises if the Conservative cuts were implemented as part of their plans for £35 billion-worth of cuts. Let us stick to
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the facts. We have seen significant progress on reducing waiting lists. In the past month, out-patient waits of more than 18 months have been cut by more than 2,000a reduction of 38.4 per cent. Eighteen months is unacceptable for waits, but in the past year the number of patients waiting longer than that time has been cut by nearly 5,000a massive 60 per cent. We are bringing waiting times down to 26 weeks within the next few years in Wales, meaning that in Wales people will get world-class treatment. Under the Conservatives, they would go back to the cuts, misery and hospital closures for which they were responsible in Wales last time.
Mr. Hain: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman pursues the question again when the truth is that the health budget in Wales has more than doubled under Labour. We recruited more nurses and consultants, and waiting times are coming down. Under Labour, the health service is safe, but it would be in a dire position if the people of Britain voted Conservative. [Interruption.]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I hold regular discussions with Assembly colleagues. The Assembly introduced free travel on local bus services for women aged 60 and over, men aged 65 and over and disabled people on 1 April 2002. This was extended to include men aged 60 to 64 on 1 April 2003.
So the Chancellor's announcement in his Budget was absolutely worthless as far as pensioners in Wales are concerned. How does that compare with the amount pensioners will have to spend in Wales as a result of the 70 per cent. council tax rise and the impending cost of revaluation?
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Mr. Touhig: Unlike the plans of the hon. Gentleman's party, pensioners in Wales will get £200 to help offset their council tax. [Hon. Members: "£500!"] Oh yes, £500; I am sure. His party's record on looking after pensioners was appalling. When it was in government, it thought that they could survive on £69 a week. That is what it did for pensioners. Under this Government, we have achieved record support for pensioners. Pensioners in Britain know: Labour delivers for them; the Tories would abandon them.
Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab): As one who is shortly to move into the category of Welsh pensioner, may I, on behalf of Welsh pensioners, thank the Government and the Assembly for the tremendous job that they have done and express surprise that the Opposition are playing to our strongest suitwhat we in government and in the Assembly have done for Welsh pensioners?
Mr. Touhig: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend's dedication over many years and wish him well in his retirement. He has represented the people of Wales and of his city well. He is absolutely right: the Labour Government have put at the heart of their policies ensuring that pensioners have dignity in old age and have the support they need. The Labour Government will look after pensionershe can be certain of that in his retirement. Vote Labour.
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