National Health Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:21 pm on 11th January 1999.

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Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald 4:21 pm, 11th January 1999

Although I join the Secretary of State in his tribute to the many workers in the health service for the way in which they have coped with the emergency, I feel that my first question must be: what is new in the statement? What in the statement is going to make the slightest bit of difference to those who are now lying on trolleys, in fear and pain, waiting for treatment? The second question is: does he really think, with his complacent statement, that he is on the same planet as those people waiting for treatment?

Does the Secretary of State now agree, with the benefit of hindsight, with what I told him as early as last September—that money for winter pressures in our health service is far too little and too late when it is issued in November? Would it not be simple common sense to allow our hospitals to know how much they will receive much earlier in the year, so that they can plan exactly how the money will be spent?

Is it not the case, as the British Medical Association has been saying along with us, that the obsession of the Labour Government with their so-called early pledge on health service waiting lists has made the current crisis in our health service far worse than it need have been and distorted clinical priorities away from patient priorities? Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many hospitals were continuing to admit routine waiting-list cases while patients were lying in pain on trolleys in corridors, with many forced to seek the help of relatives and friends to provide basic nursing care?

The Secretary of State has, understandably, been telling patients not to use accident and emergency services unless it really is an emergency, but at the same time doctors have been telling worried parents not to take any chances if they suspect that their children may have even the earliest symptoms of meningitis. Is not there a breakdown of communication in the Department of Health?

Does the Secretary of State recall that in January 1996 the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and, indeed, the now Prime Minister, promised the public that a Labour Government would immediately set up a trolley task force? What has happened to that task force? Is it stuck on a waiting list along with some of the Government's other early pledges? It is no good the right hon. Gentleman telling us that he has set up an inquiry into beds, when what he promised was an inquiry into the excessive use of trolleys.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has cut nurse training by 3 per cent. from the levels that the Conservative Government had planned for 1997–98? He made much in his statement of what he suggested were our reductions. Will he own up to having cut 3 per cent. from our planned levels in his first year in post? His belated attempts last week to wriggle out of the blame for the crisis in our health service will impress nobody in the light of that cut.

How is the Secretary of State's wish list of nursing recruitment intended to be met? Will he acknowledge the use that is even now being made of the private sector, and deduce from that that it is time to break down the ideological barriers that he continually sets up between the public and private sectors?

The Secretary of State mentioned 35 intensive beds. Where are they? Are intensive beds available in every region, or is there a concentration in particular regions? Why, in the national priorities guidance that he issued last year, is nurse recruitment not listed as a priority? Will he now, at last, abandon his ludicrous concentration on raw numbers on waiting lists in favour of waiting times, which are a far more accurate measure of whether people are getting a satisfactory service from the NHS?

I welcome the Secretary of State's good will on pay for nurses, but can he assure hard-pressed health authorities that he will make the additional money available and not expect it to come from patient care? Will he admit that it is time for a slightly more mature debate on the health service? [Interruption.] I am pleased that Labour Members are agreeing with that at last.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the problems in the health service have been there since its inception and that the extreme, and welcome, expansion of the health service, and the excess of demand over supply, have bothered every Government from Bevan's time onwards? Will he admit that the magic wands that he promised—or, to be fair, because he was not then a health spokesman, that the then Opposition promised—before the general election were not to be found?

Has not the time come for the Secretary of State to be more humble in his approach, when the nation knows that, although he went to the country with the slogan, "14 days to save the NHS", for the past 14 days he and his policies have flayed the NHS?