Health authorities share the Government's commitment to make further substantial improvements in waiting lists and times. They have developed and are now implementing urgent programmes of action. They will be greatly helped in this by the £50 million waiting list fund.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he recognise that one of the features of medical treatment in the National Health Service that causes the greatest irritation to patients is the length of time that they often have to wait in doctors' surgeries? Has any review of practices within the National Health Service included advice to help to overcome this problem?
Yes, there is irritation, although my impression is that in recent years, the position has improved quite substantially. However, waiting time is certainly one of the problems that we want to deal with.
Does the Minister appreciate that, due to the present weather conditions, there will be severe pressure on hospital services? Does he further appreciate that in certain areas this pressure now extends into spring and mid-autumn—Mid Glamorgan is a case in point? Does the Minister recognise that, ultimately, it is a matter of inadequate funding? It is becoming more apparent every day that the NHS is not safe in the hands of this Government?
I do not remotely accept that. The fact is that under this Government more patients—in-patients, day patients and out-patients—are being treated than at any time in the history of the Health Service. That shows the Government's commitment to the NHS.
Is it not true that one way in which the Government have been able to reduce NHS waiting lists is by forcing health authorities to place their patients in private hospitals paid for by the NHS? If the money is available, why is it not spent on doing up Health Service buildings and ensuring that there are a sufficient number of consultants to carry out operations within the NHS?
Mr. John Mark Taylor:
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a permanent solution to the waiting lists of the East Birmingham hospital is the earliest possible commissioning of the district general hospital at Solihull?
I think that that will make a substantial contribution to east Birmingham and Birmingham as a whole. The go-ahead for the Solihull hospital has been welcomed locally.
Will the Secretary of State hold an inquiry into the closure of acute beds and the effect on waiting lists? Is he aware that one of the quickest ways of securing savings in this fiscal year is to close acute beds? All the hospitals of North-West Thames authority have been engaged in this process. Will he examine this?
No, Sir, I will not hold an inquiry. The fact is that between 1974 and 1979 the average number of available beds fell by some 7,000 a year, but now, under this Government, that fall, on average, is about 6,000 a year. On the basis of the measures quoted by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), the position was considerably worse under the Labour Government.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the lengths of orthopaedic waiting lists are especially worrying? Therefore, will he have a special word with the profession, in particular the consultants, to ensure that they fully honour their commitment to the NHS? That would reduce orthopaedic waiting lists. Certainly in the Macclesfield area the list is unacceptably high at present.
My hon. Friend is substantially right in what he has said about the worrying nature of those waiting lists. I believe that our consultants are certainly committed in wanting to reduce waiting lists. I further believe that the new initiative, the £50 million waiting list fund, will make a further contribution to reducing those lists.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the cut of 36,000 NHS beds under this Government has already caused a substantial lengthening of waiting lists and leaves no reserve for absorbing the influx of elderly people because of the extreme cold at this time of the year? Is the Secretary of State aware that hospitals in London and the south-east are already turning away serious operation cases because they cannot cope with the number of elderly people being admitted with hypothermia, broncho-pneumonia, heart attacks or strokes? Does he realise that, because of the Government's policy of cuts, it now means that the NHS simply cannot cope with epidemics or health crises such as the present one?
I do not accept anything of what the hon. Gentleman has just said. It is a well-known fact that the closure of beds went on at a far faster pace under the Labour Government than under this Government. The Labour Government closed a record number of beds per year. Under that Government the NHS treated fewer patients, and when they handed over to us the NHS had the biggest and longest waiting list in its history.