I think it would be fair to say that our magnificent victory on 1 May 1997 resulted not just from economic factors and the failure of the last Government, but from the fact that, for at least 10 years, many people had felt that it was high time we had a change in order to save the national health service from the Tory Government who had been diminishing its role for so long. It is incumbent on every Labour Member to bear in mind the fact that we were elected for that specific reason—to save the national health service. We established it way back in the 1940s, and now, after 18 years of Tory rule, we must rebuild it.
It should also be remembered that last year the Labour Government decided to recognise the problems in the NHS, and to find sufficient money to put it back on its feet. It would be wrong to give the impression that we expected £21 billion to be allocated in the last Budget. I know of no hon. Member—and I include Tories and Liberal Democrats—who made any reference to such a figure. In fact, it is on record that the Tories' top figure was about £12 billion.
I believe that the Government's decision enables us to feel a little confident about the pay review recommendations for nurses and other NHS workers. I do not think that my speech, or that of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), will decide their fate; I think that the key ingredient in ensuring better pay for nurses was provided at the moment when the Government decided to allocate that £21 billion.
The Government may feel that the money should be spent in a certain way—that more should be spent in one area, and less in another. Let me emphasise again, as I have for several months, that the decision on pay for nurses and others—including those who clean the wards, for instance—will be a defining factor for the next three years. We cannot afford to hear, day in, day out, arguments from those who are at the sharp end in the NHS.
Unlike the Liberals, who cannot put a real figure on their spending proposals because they spent their extra penny on tax many months ago, the Government must think in terms of an increase of no less than 10 per cent. for nurses and others at the bottom of the pay scale. I hope that it will be more. If it is true that we are 12,000 nurses short, and that the NHS is short of staff at all levels, we must institute a regime that will enable us to change the position.
I agree with those who talk about getting rid of agency nurses. I will go further, and say that I do not approve of the pay review body, which was introduced by the Tory Government to solve some of their problems. I would much prefer the NHS trade unions to be able to engage in proper free collective bargaining like every other trade union. My hon. Friend the Minister should recognise that we have a crisis in the health service, that we must try to overcome it, and that in the next three years—in the run-up to the next election—we ought to be able to say that we not only found the necessary money for the NHS, but found enough for nurses, midwives and the rest.