Orders of the Day — Work, Welfare, Education and Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:02 pm on 15th May 1997.

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Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson The Secretary of State for Health, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:02 pm, 15th May 1997

I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment—or election, I am not quite sure which—as Chairman of Ways and Means. I think that we voted unanimously for you, so if anyone objects to your rulings you should remind them that we did so.

Many maiden speeches of all shapes and sizes have been made today. It would be worth while if Opposition Members—even those on the Front Bench who assert what they are going to do and tell the House what is going to happen as though they had a majority—would bear in mind the constituencies represented by Labour Members who have made their maiden speeches: such as those of Shipley, of Brighton, Kemptown, of High Peak and of Braintree. Before Opposition Members read us lectures, they might contemplate why maiden speeches have been made by Labour Members who represent such places.

I shall now refer to some of those speeches. Those people who made maiden speeches displayed awesome confidence and competence. I hope that my new hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) will not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and become chairman of the Tory 1922 Committee. Whenever there was a crisis in the House, Marcus Fox ran round like the Tory party answer to Jonesy in "Dad's Army" shouting, "Don't panic," although he always appeared to be leading the panic. My hon. Friend is fortunate to become the hon. Member for Shipley, which includes Saltaire, a distinguished place that is good to look at. When people compliment him on his youth, he should remember that at 24 he is still a year older than Pitt was when he became Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Stuart) rightly pointed out that her seat has been represented for 43 years by women, including the redoubtable Jill Knight. My hon. Friend brings to the House a wide knowledge of pensioners' problems and of pension law. I am sure that we shall draw on that knowledge, especially those of us who do not pretend to be on top of the subject of pensions and benefits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Turner) mentioned the need—in Brighton—for low-cost housing and the promotion of equal opportunities in health. I hope that he will be happy with the Queen's Speech and with what I have to say tonight.

The next maiden speech was from my hon. and good Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who succeeded one of my closest friends in the House, John Garrett, who sadly had to retire because of the temporary—I hope—state of his health. My hon. Friend welcomed the private finance initiative partnership and I shall return to that subject. As with so many issues in today's society, the Tories claim credit for an initiative that they originally opposed. Public-private partnerships fall into that category, as I will explain later.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) rightly claimed credit for his work in supporting the restoration of trade union rights at GCHQ. Today's statement and policy change are a credit to the new Government and will restore civil liberties that were roughly and unpleasantly set aside by the present Government—[Interruption.] I mean the previous Government; I will get it right eventually. I confess to the House that when I arrived in the former Secretary of State's office on the Saturday after the election and was given a pile of briefings by the civil servants, I was puzzled by the apparent common sense of what the briefings called "Government policy". It was only after I had read the third one that I realised that "the Government" meant us.

The next maiden speech was from my new hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). When most people think of Harrow, they think of education or at least of one particular educational institution—Harrow school. My hon. Friend pointed out that whatever the state of that publicly subsidised institution, the state of the schools in the rest of Harrow leaves much to be desired. Something needs to be done.

My extremely confident new hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) rightly paid tribute to several of his predecessors. I join with others in saying that he was right to pay tribute to his immediate predecessor, Tony Newton, who is a decent man. I have never known whether the following story about Tony is true, but he is such a decent man that it may be. When he discovered that his official driver did not like driving on the motorway, the arrangement was that at the motorway slip road Tony got in the driver's seat and the driver got in the back. Whether it is true or not, the story is entirely in character with that very decent man.

My hon. Friend referred to a health institution at Black Notley. If anything comes in about it, I shall refer it to one of my hon. Friends to deal with. I happen to know, however, that Black Notley is rather a nice place, so perhaps I could go there.

There were two other maiden speeches tonight, in a sense. I am making one of them—my first speech from the Government side of the House and from the Government Front Bench. The former Secretary of State made his maiden speech from the Opposition Front Bench. So far as I can make out, he had a reasonable reputation in the Department. I do not think that I am giving away any secrets. At the worst, he was regarded, if I may sloganise, as better than Bottomley, but of course that is not the highest praise in the history of the world.

I shall not indulge in many reference to points made by the would-be Leader of the Opposition this evening, but in relation to the health service his claim that the Tories were the breakers-up of bureaucracy took the biscuit. We had expected some recantation from those on the Opposition Benches, but they are apparently into denial. That breaker of bureaucracy presided over a health service which ended up with 20,000 extra bureaucrats and 50,000 fewer nurses. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] If that statement is rubbish, it is based on figures supplied by the Department of Health when it was in the control of Tory Ministers. I accept no responsibility for their accuracy or otherwise. [Interruption.] The figures were supplied by the right hon. Gentleman's Department to my predecessors who at the time were leading for Labour on health. If he objects to the use of them, he should have corrected them at the time.

Labour Members, old and new, will understand my feelings when I say how honoured I am to have been invited by the Prime Minister to become the Labour Secretary of State for Health and so to have ministerial responsibility for the national health service, which was founded by our party in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives and which has served the British people so well for almost 50 years.

The NHS was founded on the principle that the best health services should be available to all. That basic principle of fairness explains why the NHS and the dedicated people who work in it are so dear to the hearts of all decent and right-thinking people in our country. The basic fairness of the health service goes with the grain. It matches the basic fairness of our people. They cherish a health system based on the commitment to provide people with top-quality treatment because they need it—not because they are rich or influential, not because they happen to live in a particular place or go to a particular doctor, but because they need it. The best health services should be available to all. Quality and equality have been the slogans of democratic socialists since democratic socialism commenced.

Those treasured principles of fairness, quality and equality have been breached under the outgoing Government. The changes that they made have created a two-tier system which is unfair to patients and repugnant to doctors who have to impose the unfairness, and is costing a fortune in bureaucracy, invoices and red tape. We will get rid of it. We will get rid of the internal market. That is what we promised the British people at the general election, and we have already made a start at keeping that promise.

On the Saturday on which the Cabinet was appointed, I set in train arrangements to tackle two-tierism and to make sure that non-fundholder patients do not suffer the disadvantages that they have been suffering up to now. The arrangements will streamline the system, tackle the paperchase and cut the flow of invoices. They will reduce management costs and release money instead for treating patients. As we promised in our manifesto, we shall divert the millions saved on bureaucracy to the treatment of patients and, in particular, to cut waiting times for cancer treatment. That is certainly needed, because at the moment 78,000 people admitted for cancer treatment have waited more than a month for that treatment, and nearly 2,500 have waited more than three months.

We intend to change the fundholding system, with all its associated unfairness and bureaucracy. We shall replace it with local commissioning, in which general practitioners and other primary care professionals can work together to help plan local services and arrange for local hospitals to meet local needs. Most people working in the NHS share our criticisms of the existing system and our wish to change it for the better. But we must all recognise that after 18 years of Tory government— 18 years of almost constant upheaval and 18 years of change for the sake of change—most people in the NHS do not want another round of ill-thought-out, untried and untested reorganisation. They want something better than that, they deserve something better than that, and they will get it from this Government.

All over the country, forward-looking people in the NHS are trying to develop new and better models than fundholding—modern arrangements, designed to provide top-quality treatment to meet local needs in the real world. Those models are based not on the half-baked theories of overpaid management consultants, but on the principle of fairness and on a commitment to top-quality services. They draw on the day-to-day experience of the real needs of real patients.