The hon. Lady was doing quite well for the first four or five minutes of her intervention. I was going to welcome what she was saying, and I am grateful that her constituents and mine live in the area of a health authority that has coped reasonably well.
However, the hon. Lady said that this epidemic has been the worst in a decade. In reality, it is probably only the fourth worst outbreak in 10 years, and it is not so different from other outbreaks. In any case, why should routine surgery have to be cancelled? Outbreaks of flu in our health care system happen in most years, so why should we be grateful that emergency admissions have not been stopped? The hon. Lady's remarks reveal an almost incredible complacency.
The Secretary of State is second to none in his dislike of independent health care. I have a letter from the former chairman of the St. Helier health trust, describing what happened on Thursday 26 March 1998 at the Department of Health building at Elephant and Castle. He and his
colleagues were to be lectured on their obligations by the then Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). However, because the right hon. Gentleman was late, the present Secretary of State gave the lecture. The letter states that the Secretary of State admonished the audience to deliver the Government's promise on waiting lists. The letter adds:
During questions, someone (I think, but cannot be sure, that it was Dr. Tudor Thomas, the Chief Executive of Epsom Healthcare NHS Trust) referred to a satisfactory arrangement his Trust had with a local private hospital.
The present Secretary of State was described as "furious". The letter states that he
told us all that he would 'come down like a ton of bricks' on anyone who had anything to do with the private sector.
The letter went on:
I was sitting next to Sir William Rous (sadly deceased) chairman of Kingston Hospital NHS Trust, and he was as incensed as I was at the dogmatic and nonsensical attitude.
That dogmatic and nonsensical attitude persists to this day at the heart of the Department of Health.
The real reason for today's debate is that matters need not be as they are. Up and down the country, doctors, nurses, other health care professionals and voters do not want the NHS to be used as a political football in future. [Interruption.] The mechanism for delivering health care in this country need be no more controversial than it is in other developed countries. That is entirely possible.
Today, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I made an offer to the Government and to the Liberal Democrat party. Three things can be done to remove the national health service from this febrile political atmosphere. First, we offer the NHS a guarantee. It needs long-term stable financing and less political interference. We believe that there should be increased NHS funding year on year in real terms. We believe that there should be improved NHS management, allowing hospitals to get on with the job of treating patients, and no privatisation—instead, as now, there should be a continued commitment to publicly funded health care, free at the point of delivery.
Secondly, the NHS should give patients a guarantee. [Interruption.] This is a serious debate; it requires something more than the primary school outing that is being held on the Government Back Benches.
Patients should have a guaranteed waiting time, determined by the clinical priorities of doctors, not the political priorities of spin doctors. There should be an agreement that if the NHS cannot meet the guarantee, independent health care resources should be used. What matters is when patients are treated, not where they are treated or what sector they are treated by.
Overall, our health service requires more resources. We need to increase our expenditure in the NHS—the state-funded sector—and in the private sector. There should be no ideological block to partnership with independent health care providers. I mentioned how the crisis in the health service could have been averted had we used the independent sector better. However, there should be no punishment through the taxation system for those who take out independent health care provision, and we should review the tax treatment of health care costs on companies and individuals. We should create the opportunity to expand total health spending in both the public and personal sectors to reach more quickly the level spent on health by our major European partners.
We believe that a mixed provision in health care will enable us to reach the health outcomes of our European partners, but far more quickly than the target set by the Prime Minister. The dogma of the Labour party, however, prevents us from doing so.