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Mr. Graham Stuart: The right hon. Gentleman's description of Conservative party policy is a total travesty. What we heard in the excellent exposition by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is that the Conservative party is now the party of our national health service. [Laughter.] Labour Members may laugh, but during the 1990s, under the Conservatives, productivity in the health service increased year after year. Since Labour came to power, where has the money gone? Where has it been wasted by this Chancellor? It has gone in falling productivity, as shown on page 22 of the booklet "Productivity in the UK 6", which was produced yesterday.

Mr. Darling: If the hon. Gentleman is talking about whether there are more doctors and nurses in the NHS,
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yes there are, and that makes a difference. It is why we have been able to reduce waiting lists, and it is one of the reasons why deaths caused by cancer and other diseases have fallen. But the right hon. Member for West Dorset was not making the case for the NHS. He was almost arguing the opposite—that it makes no difference whether one puts money into the NHS. We saw what happened when the Conservatives ran the health service for 18 years: we had long waiting lists. People had to wait for month after month to see a doctor, and for ages to see their GP. It is essential that we support people working in the health service, but we cannot do that if at the same time we deny them the means to do what they are supposed to be doing, which is treating patients.

Mr. Letwin: Does the Secretary of State welcome or regret the fact that 2,000 people have been sacked from the NHS in the past week?

Mr. Darling: No one can be satisfied with a situation whereby NHS trusts get into difficulties. However, the point is that we are spending more money, with £5 billion this year and £6 billion to come next year. The vast majority of trusts are able to cope. Surely the Conservatives are not arguing that if a trust gets into deficit year after year it should simply be bailed out. If some trusts can manage their affairs, others can as well.

In denying that there is a role for the Government or the state, the right hon. Member for West Dorset gets himself into the difficulties that were illustrated earlier this year, when he talked about reducing poverty and said:

When he was asked,

he replied,

Of course the right hon. Gentleman has to say that, because the Conservatives have bound themselves dogmatically to their third fiscal rule, whereby spending has to fall as a percentage of gross domestic product regardless of the needs of the nation. Regardless of whether we need, as we do, to take children out of poverty and reduce pensioner poverty, regardless of what we need to spend on education or infrastructure, they are bound right from the start, before a single policy has been formulated, to cutting expenditure. First they said that they would do it annually, then over a Parliament, then over a cycle. That means that over the economic cycle, regardless of the needs of the economy, the infrastructure or any public spending, they have to cut their public expenditure.

Ed Balls: In light of that, was my right hon. Friend surprised when yesterday the shadow Chief Secretary confirmed not only that under the Conservatives spending would be lower than under this Government, but that the Conservatives would not match our pledge to raise the level of state school spending over time to that of private schools?

Mr. Darling: I was not, as it happens. I think that the hon. Lady was being disarmingly honest, which is
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probably why she was taken off the airwaves at 3.27 pm yesterday. She actually said what the Conservatives think. It is worth reminding the House what happened when she was interviewed on Sky television. I am glad that she is here, because she will no doubt take the opportunity to make any further clarification that she thinks necessary. She was asked by Adam Boulton whether "compared to what he"—

my right hon. Friend the Chancellor— "is planning on spending you would be spending less?"

She replied, "It would certainly"—or rather, for the sake of completeness, what she actually said was:

It is pretty clear to me that the hon. Lady has eloquently set out precisely what is Conservative party policy. Regardless of what we might need on health, education, or defence—you name it—the Conservatives have got themselves into a position whereby before they set out a single policy, they are stuck with the fact that their third fiscal rule means that they cannot make any rational judgment as to what is required in the future.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): When the Chancellor made the announcement yesterday about matching education funding in the private sector, had he forgotten that the Prime Minister made the same pledge in 2001, or does he simply not read the Prime Minister's speeches?

Mr. Darling: We have been moving towards that aim. We have increased expenditure on education. [Interruption.] The difference between the Labour and Conservative parties is that we have increased the money for education. We have reduced class sizes and refurbished and replaced hundreds of schools throughout the country. Doubtless the hon. Gentleman remembers the policy on which the Conservatives fought successive elections. They originally tried to encourage people to opt out. Subsequently, they have opposed every item of proposed expenditure in the past seven or eight years.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said yesterday that if we genuinely want to improve education standards and ensure that we have a highly skilled work force, two things are necessary. The first is continuing to make the necessary reforms to drive up standards. Secondly, we must back that up with the money necessary to employ teachers, provide the right IT equipment and so on. The Conservative party opposes that. The fiscal rule that it has adopted means that it cannot spend the money needed on education, or anything else, regardless of the needs of this country.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It would be helpful if the Secretary of State could grasp the obvious and straightforward proposition that expenditure is a necessary but insufficient condition of improvement in the public services. Given that thousands of children from state schools—I attended one, unlike the Secretary of State—are leaving school unable to read, is not it time that the Government stopped heeding the advice on
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teaching reading that Kimberley, Meek and Miller have proffered for the past 20 years in the psycho-semiotic framework that the shared reading lesson is viewed as an ideological—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is supposed to be making an intervention.

Mr. Darling: I have listened to the hon. Gentleman for several years, and there may be more in common between what he and I think than between what he and Conservative Front Benchers think. I believe that he accepts that reform in the classroom is essential but that one cannot improve education without spending at least some money on it. The right hon. Member for West Dorset opposes the extra money for education.

If we want to ensure that we have smaller classes, we need more teachers. If we want decent IT equipment in schools, we have to pay for it. When the Conservatives were in power and my children were in primary school, a computer was a rarity. There were computers in private schools but not in state schools. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Again I ask the House to come to order. Let us have a sensible and mature debate.

Mr. Darling: If we followed the Conservative party's fiscal rule, which means spending £17 billion less this year and £16 billion less next year, that would have a substantial effect on capital and other expenditure. Surely it must be obvious to the right hon. Gentleman privately—I understand his difficulty in blurting it out publicly—that the shadow Chief Secretary's eloquently expressed admission that "Yes, absolutely" there will be less expenditure, causes the Conservatives some problems.

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