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House of Lords

Monday, 8th May 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay

Matthew Alan Oakeshott, Esquire, having been created Baron Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, of Seagrove Bay in the County of Isle of Wight, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Thomson of Monifieth and the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

Lord Greaves

Anthony Robert Greaves, Esquire, having been created Baron Greaves, of Pendle in the County of Lancashire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Tordoff and the Baroness Hamwee, and made the solemn Affirmation.

National Health Service: Waiting List Targets

2.48 p.m.

Lord Feldman asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they expect to meet their National Health Service waiting list targets.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we are well on course to achieve the 100,000 reduction promised by the end of this Parliament. The latest data (for end February 2000) show that the number of patients on National Health Service waiting lists is now 70,000 below the level inherited.

Lord Feldman: My Lords, I am glad that the figures are near to hand. However, the 70,000 figure relates to three to four months ago. I should have thought that after 27,000 hours of work the early pledge of a 100,000 reduction would have been better achieved. Have the figures for the waiting list for the waiting list improved? These have doubled in the past three years. I heard the Leader of the House--

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Feldman: My Lords, I am coming to the question. I heard the Leader of the House comment that the NHS waiting list target was a blip. As a blip is a minor error or deviation, will the Minister agree that the figure was more of a flop than a blip?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords; winter pressures had an impact on the waiting list figures, but we expected that. We made the pledge to reduce the figure by 100,000 during the lifetime of this Parliament. We are well on course to do that. Far from the figure being a blip, it demonstrates a consistent approach to tackling waiting lists over our three years in office.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, after three years it is clear that the Government's concentration on in-patient waiting lists has had the knock-on effect of a severe deterioration in out-patient waiting times. Those have doubled since the general election. Will the Government now abandon these pointless targets; or do they propose to ask Sir Richard Branson to deal with the matter?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong in his analysis. Of course we have to tackle out-patient waiting lists with the same determination as we tackle in-patient waiting lists. In the financial year between 1996-97 and 1998-99 the number of out-patients treated rose from 10,248,000 to 10,646,000. At the same time as making considerable inroads into the in-patient waiting lists, we have treated hundreds of thousands of additional patients. That is a measure of our success.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, will the Minister assure us that there is no sense in which the number of more difficult cases on the waiting list has been reduced in order to deal with the easier cases? Can he stand at the Dispatch Box and tell us that there is no sense in which that has occurred?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the position is clear. In the NHS, emergency cases are always treated first. Urgent treatments are always given priority, but, ultimately, matters rest on the individual clinical decisions of individual doctors.

Earl Howe: My Lords, does not the Minister agree that waiting times, not the number of people waiting, is the better measure of the ability of the NHS to cope with the demands placed on it? Furthermore, is it not the case that since the Government took office the number of patients waiting for more than a year to see a consultant has risen from 30,100 to 51,900?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, if you tackle waiting lists, you tackle waiting times. I remind the noble Earl that, under the Patient's Charter, his party pledged to end waits of longer than 18 months. His government failed to succeed in that pledge. This Government are determined to tackle waiting lists and to speed up treatment for all patients. It is a key indicator in our modernisation of the health service.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, when the Government stop telling themselves that they are doing so much better than the previous government and think about the present and the future, are they

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satisfied with the figures which my noble friend Lord Howe has given? Can the Minister say whether they are correct and whether the Government are satisfied with them?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as a result of the deficits and pressures on the health service when we came to office, there was at the beginning of our term, as the noble Earl suggested, an increase in the number of patients waiting for treatment. However, in the actions that the Government have taken, a determined effort has been made to reduce that. Therefore, we are very much on course to meet the target that we pledged at the last election.

Roads Maintenance: Funding

2.54 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in view of the annual Local Authority Road Maintenance Survey published on 17th April, local authorities are receiving enough money to maintain their roads and road safety.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government have reversed the cuts in maintenance expenditure made during the mid-1990s and are continuing to increase funding levels. Increases in funding take several years to be reflected in condition survey results. We are currently investigating ways to produce a more accurate estimate of maintenance need and are considering whether further funding should be made available as part of the current spending review.

Authorities fund road safety schemes from their transport single block allocations. Road safety priorities are set by authorities in their road safety strategies.

Funding levels in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the responsibility of the devolved administrations.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Does he recall that in 1998 the then Transport Minister said:

    "Maintenance of existing roads is our number one priority"?

How is it then that on local authority and on national roads the Government have spent less in the past three years than did the Conservative government in the three years previous to that? Is it not also the case that expenditure on local authority roads is set to fall in 2001-02, according to figures produced by the House of Commons Library?

Is the Minister further aware that 75 per cent of local authorities believe that there is a threat to the safety of road users due to the under-funding of road maintenance?

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Lord Whitty: My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's final point, I accept that the conditions survey indicates a problem with a number of local roads, which in certain circumstances can pose a safety problem. However, I entirely refute the rest of his question. As regards local authority roads, the previous government in their last four years cut expenditure by 7 per cent whereas this Government have increased it by 11 per cent in the past three years.

As regards national roads, we have provided more additional funding for the Highways Agency maintenance. The noble Lord might be slightly misinformed about the level of Highways Agency expenditure. That is a common fault in debates because some of the expenditure has been transferred to the GLA and that does not appear in the figures.

Apart from that, we are continuing to increase both the capital funding of maintenance through the local transport plan and the amount allocated in the SSA calculations.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, as Britain is essentially a road-based economy, does the Minister agree that it is essential properly to maintain our road network?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, yes. However, I find myself in a cultural warp in that noble Lords are urging me to dig more holes in the roads. However, in a positive sense, the maintenance of roads is important and a proper programme is necessary for Highways Agency roads and local authority roads. Both are being addressed by the Government, but it takes time to feed through. Furthermore, we are still suffering from the cut in the mid-1990s.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, it is easy to blame this and the previous governments. However, does not the Minister agree that conditions last winter did more damage to the roads than can be remembered during the past 20 years? Rural roads--and I speak particularly about Norfolk where there are several thousand miles--are dehaunched, debanked and all the corners have disappeared. The amount of money required to make them passable by decent traffic in time for next winter is phenomenal.

Will the Government look further into the experiments being carried out in Norfolk on quiet lanes? For a start, I hope that many roads will be shut off and gated in order to stop heavy transport using roads that are unsuitable.

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