Orders of the Day — National Health Service Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th March 1952.

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Photo of Mr Philip Bell Mr Philip Bell , Bolton East 12:00 am, 27th March 1952

It is a great comfort to me in my highly nervous state to reflect that at any rate in a few minutes' time I shall be able to give one answer to one question, though it is rather a personal one. I shall be able to answer those constituents who with irritating frequency keep coming to a new Member and asking, "Have you spoken yet?" I am advised that a new Member exercising his privilege on these occasions must be very careful not to say anything controversial.

Many hon. Members present here today do, I am sure, look back already on many powerful speeches and regard them in a regal way from their safe and large majorities. But they do, perhaps, remember how very naked and defenceless they felt when they were in my shoes. They could not fill up the gaps in rhetoric and oratory by a little bit of prejudice or abuse. They could not resent the fact that other hon. Members were not paying attention by leaning forward and saying with a great lack of self-consciousness, "You baboons." They could not win the headlines—sometimes I believe the principal object of a speech—by rounding on their own Front Bench and describing their own right hon. Friends in that historic phrase as "squalid Tammany Hall bosses." All these things are denied to me on this occasion, and I appreciate that my contribution is only a cup of cold water which will be dashed into the fiery furnace of this debate.

Let me now say something—for I am afraid I must since it is expected of me—about the topic which we are discussing today. I have three things to say about this Bill. I daresay none of them is very novel, but I do not believe that is necessarily objectionable. The first is that the Bill itself is not a novel Bill. One has only to read the first few lines of it to realise that it extends "the existing powers." In my submission, it is a Bill which should not excite controversy over its principle, but only over its details. Whether in fact the details are wise or not is, of course, a matter for full discussion.

My second point is that this Bill is not to be a shackle on the National Health Service for ever. It is clear from Clause 3 that, to a large extent, it is experimental. Clause 3 says that the Minister shall have power to vary the amount to be charged under this Measure or under any other regulations, and that he may direct that it shall cease to be payable. It is therefore a Bill which explores methods of making the National Health Service even better than it is today and assures its solvency.

The third thing about it is that when I look at the National Health Service Estimates—I have no experience of these matters—although I see that there is to be a decrease under heading D of the General Medical heading, it is counterbalanced by the other payments which are, in fact, being made to the credit and thus there is in the end a credit. It is an interesting comment on Parliamentary discussion that the total figures are so rarely brought into operation.

That leaves me to say only this. I do not suppose that anybody in this House really thinks that the last word has been said about the administration of the social services, and, in particular, of the National Health Service. We know—and it is idle to pretend that it is always the other side that makes mistakes—great advances were made in the National Health Service as conducted under the leadership of hon. Members opposite. Of course, they made a great contribution. I do not believe they are so vain as not to know that there are some things that could be adjusted and improved. We are all trying to improve the service, and, as has already been said, get value for our money. In that, surely, we are all together.

The right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill)—I was rather jealous that she should have taken my point—dealt with the question of expensive drugs. I have been told by medical practitioners in my constituency that there is the great danger that an ordinary drug which can be paid for under an ordinary prescription is not being prescribed, and that instead an expensive proprietary drug is prescribed. Ordinary general practitioners have said that there is a great leakage there. I believe that matter has already been mentioned by some of my hon. Friends, and it was certainly mentioned in another place. It is something that has to be done as part of the scheme. It is another experiment or progression to be made.

In the same way I am told by the surgeons and medical practitioners I meet that in Manchester there are instances of over-staffing and of duplication, and that great savings could be made in the hospital services in that respect. Quite frankly, I am personally uneasy about the charges in respect to old age pensioners. I know it has been said that it is administratively impossible to exclude them. I am puzzled by this because I am told that it is done in Northern Ireland. A different coloured prescription form is used. One is free and the other is not. Therefore, I am not wholly satisfied as yet that it is administratively impossible to exclude old age pensioners. Whether there are other reasons for not doing so is, of course, another matter and should perhaps have to be taken into account in the whole picture.

In many countries some charge is made. In New Zealand, in Denmark, and even in the Isle of Man a charge is made, and according to the best information I have received there has not, as yet, been any increased mortality in the Isle of Man on that account.

The truth of course is, as the right hon. Lady said, that there are bound to be some cases of hardship in human affairs There is unfairness, there is hardship, there is loss of dignity at times—of course there is. It is a thing to be avoided, but in my submission it is not a thing upon which to base the economy of the country today because, as I see it, we are fighting a very stern battle today. We are, not tomorrow or next year, but today, under the black shadow of financial disaster.

Hon. Members will remember, or at least some of them will, that in the old days that great Commoner, William Pitt, just before he died, was told of the result of the Battle of Austerlitz, and he turned to his secretary and said, "Roll up the map of Europe, it will not be required these 20 years." If we fail this year to stave off financial disaster we can roll up our National Health Service Act, because it will not be wanted for 20 years; we should have no money, only chaos and disaster.

That is a right way, surely, in which we should meet this problem. It is not for me, perhaps, as a new Member, to say anything about the functions of the House, but personally I feel that our functions in this battle are rather limited, though we can help in a small way. The battle is to be won in the fields and the factories and the homes and the churches. We can set a standard here: we can give a lead; we can do no more. We can say, "Shall we talk reasonably, shall we be patient, shall we be fair?"; and if we do that, the country will pay attention to what we say. But if we sit here and discuss these matters viciously and with cleverness, with hate and and with spite, what do we expect from the country?

Hon. Members, who have been very patient with me, and indeed I am grateful, will excuse me if I make what is probably an awful mistake for a young Member to make, and that is to refer to Shakespeare. Perhaps other Members have done so on these occasions. I want to refer to those fine lines in "King John": This England never did, nor never shallLie at the proud foot of a conqueror. We all remember that. Do we remember the next line? But when it first did help to wound itself. It is a grave responsibility for us this year, under this financial crisis. It is we who must see that we do not give way to too much irritation, prejudice and passion, and it is we who must make sure that the Commons of England are not the first to wound our country.