Autumn Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 14th January 1988.

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Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Monklands East 4:48 pm, 14th January 1988

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: `regrets that the Autumn Statement fails to provide adequate resources for the vital public services and the people who need them, particularly the National Health Service which consequently faces further under-funding next year, and, despite a deteriorating situation in the balance of trade and balance of payments and unsettled international economic relationships, does not propose measures to strengthen manufacturing industry and science and technology, promote vigorous regional development, or significantly reduce unemployment'. I suppose that it is not unusual for this Chancellor of the Exchequer to dodge the main issue in the debate, but we should remind him that the debate is about the Autumn Statement. Although it is interesting to hear his views on the world economy, and although it is important that we should discuss that matter, among other things, one would have expected a Chancellor of the Exchequer who had proposed the Autumn Statement — this is the first opportunity which the House has had formally to debate it—to defend and argue for the propositions contained in this crucial statement of the pattern of public expenditure. However, the Chancellor is fulfilling his promise that he would not say a word about it. He said that he would leave it to his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, who, of course, will be the last speaker in the debate, so there will be no opportunity for any hon. Member to hear the Government's views about the Autumn Statement until the wind-up speech. That does not seem to be the action of a Chancellor who is confident of his ability to defend the propositions that he put forward in his Autumn Statement.

Labour Members conceive their role to be slightly different. We shall probe the underlying issues in the Autumn Statement and invite the Government to defend some of the conclusions that emerged from it. However, before I do that, I have to comment on the fact that we have had to endure once again the commonplace of speeches by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the British economy, under his beneficent stewardship, is in a condition of near perfection. If I exaggerate, it can be only slightly, because the Chancellor never misses an opportunity to say how difficult things are in the rest of the world but how well-managed they are here in the United Kingdom.

I have a purpose in making that statement. To put it mildly, the Chancellor's claim is a matter of dispute. A glance at the balance of trade figures, particularly the prognosis for the balance of payments, which, typically, the Chancellor once again ignored, would soon jolt back to reality anyone who might temporarily have succumbed to the public relations hype which the Government substitute for serious policy discussion and presentation.

To elucidate some of the important issues on the public expenditure front, let me, for the purposes of argument, if for nothing else, assume that the Government are correct in their claims for the economy. Let us assume that the economy is stong and that the nation is prosperous. Let us assume also that, as every economic commentator predicts, the Chancellor will, by 15 March—the ides of March—have £3 billion to £4 billion at his disposal. Some commentators put the amount higher than others, but all agree that that figure is roughly correct. It would be fair for the purposes of argument to proceed on that assumption.

Let us consider public expenditure in that context, particularly spending on the National Health Service. I hope that the House does not need to be reminded of the crisis in our Health Service. The Government's first response to the crisis was to deny that it existed. Day after day, particularly during and after questions to the Prime Minister, from about the time of the Autumn Statement until quite recently, there was an endless barrage of statistics from the Prime Minister. Most people waiting for treatment and their relatives who could not find treatment in our hospitals, particularly in the acute services, found those statistics pretty wildly irrelevant to their problems and to their circumstances. They were irrelevant to the fact that there were empty wards because there were no trained nurses available to staff them. They were irrelevant to children who had to wait for serious heart operations.

The Government's first attempt was to deny that the problem existed. That attempt was increasingly undermined as a position which they could defend, as medical and nursing professions, appalled at the crisis that they knew existed in the service and strongly supported by a public who rely uniquely on the National Health Service for the prevention and cure of illness and disease, the alleviation of avoidable pain and the moderation of disability, made it crystal clear that the Government's presentation of the condition of the National Health Service was in stark contrast to the reality encountered in hospital wards.

Let us take just one manifestation of that concern—the protest by the heads of the three royal medical colleges. They spoke out against what they described as the breakdown of acute hospital services and the almost total collapse of morale in hospitals. Yesterday, they at last met the Secretary of State for Social Services. At long last, after months of the campaign, the Government have admitted that there will be a need to increase the total resources available to the National Health Service. I hope that that means that we shall have an amendment to the proposals in the Autumn Statement. Nothing was said about it by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We would find the statement made by the Secretary of State for Social Services to the heads of the royal medical colleges a little more convincing if he came to the House of Commons today and explained the financial changes that the Government are prepared to make, following the assurances that they apparently gave to those senior medical figures yesterday. We shall wait with interest to hear the Chief Secretary spell out the increase in resources that the Government propose to make.

Let us accept that we have passed by the argument that there is no need for more resources. Both sides of the House agree that we urgently need more resources for the National Health Service.