Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities

Part of Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 7:49 pm on 12th November 1990.

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Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon , Halifax 7:49 pm, 12th November 1990

I wish to talk about the right of people to have decent health care and the Government's responsibility to provide it. Two news items caught my attention last week. The first, in The Independent on Wednesday was headlined NHS cuts 4,500 beds to save cash. The second one, in the Morning Star on Saturday described how leave for key staff in London hospitals had been cancelled.

The first headline referred to the crisis facing the national health service, which was brought on, not by inefficient management or overpaid staff, but by a Government who have deliberately underfunded the national health service for the past 11 years. The survey in The Independent included beds that had been closed purely for the lack of cash in the past financial year. All the managers who replied to the survey were clear on the key reason for the bed losses—to wipe out deficits by the end of the financial year, whatever the cost in pain and misery. The survey underestimated the number of bed losses. It included my own local health authority, Calderdale, and said that the bed loss was 76, but the actual number is 99.

The last time that the national health service faced such a crisis was in 1987. Then as now, there was a massive bed closure and the Prime Minister stepped in and ordered a review—the rest is history. We are now stuck with the dreadful National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, with which nobody agreed but the Prime Minister and a few of her advisers. The Prime Minister based her model for new health care on the United States market structure. Early experience of that market-oriented model shows that it has abjectly and spectacularly failed.

In my health authority last week we heard that a new hospital that should have been built had been put back yet another four years. The excuse given was the slump in the property market that has forced the regional health authority to delay its capital programme. I do not believe that the Government seriously intended to build the new hospital, but they closed wards and a laundry to make way for it and have thus seriously damaged the service. The recent advice from local consultants is that because of those closures, waiting lists will rise to more than 1,000 in a year, and in the gynaecological department, 500 women will have to wait more than 12 months for treatment. Those closures have obviously caused a great deal of damage to the service and many people on waiting lists will become ill; some may even die.

My local example also shows that this year's bed closures could take waiting lists in England to more than I million for the first time in the national health service. That is a disgraceful statistic for a Government who pretend to spend a lot of money on health care. I do not believe that the extra £2·4 billion—the pre-election bribe announced by the Chancellor—will do much to alleviate the crisis. The Government calculations assume an inflation rate of 6 per cent. If wage increases are 10·9 per cent., which is what they should be if staff are not to take a cut in pay, the calculation of any growth is worthless. I do not see why low-paid health authority staff should have to bail out a Government who will not fund them properly. Health authorities are expected to find an additional £210 million from efficiency savings—a Government euphemism for cuts.

The Government's privatisation programme in the health service has been a complete disaster and led to dirtier hospitals, poorer food and, in many cases, a lousy laundry service, which any nurse will say is disgraceful. The forthcoming Labour Government will end the system of compulsory competitive tendering in such services as catering, laundry and domestic services.

As time is short, I shall refer to the second headline in the Morning Star. It states: London hospitals have cancelled leave for key staff and reserved emergency beds for possible war casualties from the Gulf crisis. The Ministry of Defence initially denied that contingency plans for an emergency had been put into operation. However, today's edition of The Guardian carries a report that Britain's naval hospitals have more than doubled the amount of space set aside for mortuary preparations … The hospitals at … Plymouth and in Portsmouth, have each turned a medical ward into a mortuary to allow them together to deal with up to 100 bodies each day. We have been told that if war breaks out in the Gulf a worst case scenario would be as many as 400 dead a day. Yesterday, the Secretary of State rejected any such suggestion. He said: Our determination would be to see casualty figures nothing like that figure at all. If the Secretary of State for Defence believes that, before he plunges this country into war, he has a duty to tell us his estimate of the number of casualties. How many body bags does he anticipate will occupy the new mortuaries in Portsmouth and Plymouth? Where will the victims of a modern war be treated and what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of civilians currently on the growing waiting lists?

The world has no shortage of enemies. If the Prime Minister and the Government want to look for enemies, they can look at poverty, hunger and disease, and find plenty. They could have joined in with Opposition Members in opposing Saddam Hussein years ago when we said that we should not increase export credits to that man. The Government have used double standards on the Gulf. We did not go to war when the United States invaded Grenada or Panama, the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan, Indonesia annexed East Timor, or Israel claimed Jerusalem as its capital city and continued to occupy Gaza and the west bank. The hypocrisy of a Prime Minister who can mouth platitudes on the sanctity of international law and the necessity of war trials when she has slavishly followed United States policy in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Cambodia, is frankly sickening. The stench of such hypocrisy brings shame to our country.

If the Prime Minister takes this country into what will be a devastating war, let her at least be honest about the reasons. Those include self-preservation and her hope for the Falklands factor—then, as now, she was in deep trouble at home, as is the President of the United States. Another of her reasons is to protect the oil companies' interests and the west's determination to get its hands on the oil.