Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:23 pm on 22nd January 2002.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Conservative, Rushcliffe 5:23 pm, 22nd January 2002

The Major Government, and I as Chancellor, tackled public finances in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party. We brought the public sector borrowing requirement under control, and at no stage did the national debt become out of control and unsustainable. When presenting unattractive Budgets, Labour becomes obsessed with taking credit for repayment of the national debt. As I have pointed out in the past, the present Chancellor managed that largely by accident rather than by design, having got his forecasts wrong.

The fact that, in a debate on the future of public services, the Labour party is interested only in the history of the national debt represents a strange transformation; but I will discuss the national debt on a more suitable occasion, as I have already made my case.

I believe that the crisis in the public services is, in most instances, considerably worse than it was when Labour took over in 1997. There were problems then, but they have undoubtedly worsened—certainly in the national health service, and certainly on the railways. Members who shake their heads or, even worse, try to respond by means of what I have already described as a cavalier excursion into the party politics of the 1990s seriously misunderstand the public if they do not realise that that is the feeling out there. If most of my constituents had been able to hear the speech of the Secretary of State for Health today on such an important subject, they would be deeply worried about the outlook for the country. It is time that we saw something more positive emerge from the debate.

In their rare moments of candour, the Labour Government actually seem to admit that they failed to deliver in their first term. Their excuse is that they need another term in which to try to deliver. That admission, when it comes—and not a whisper of it has come today—does a little credit to the Labour Ministers who have been responsible for public services. It amounts to an admission of what I believe to be the case: that the Government were elected as a party with many promises, but no policies of any substance to deal with the public services about which they had been so vociferous when they were attacking us.

The failure to deliver was not the responsibility of the civil service, which Labour's spin doctors usually blame when they are pressed. It was the bright young men who were brought into the Downing street policy unit who failed to deliver. A series of White Papers, initiatives and reviews have been produced, against a backdrop of declining standards in our key public services. That ought to be acknowledged, but it is plainly not being acknowledged.

I agreed with one observation made by Dr. Harris in his extraordinary and, in my view, entirely inadequate speech. He suggested that one thing the Labour party was doing following its latest change of policy—in some areas, particularly the health service—was grudgingly returning to the agenda of the Thatcher-Major reforms. There have been increasing echoes of the course on which we were set in recent ministerial pronouncements, or at least in the behind-the-scenes briefing that accompanies them. For reasons that are understandable if one looks at Back-Bench Labour Members, the Government are in a state of denial and cannot acknowledge that. The Secretary of State for Health had to exhume every cliché in the old Labour book to defend himself, when in fact he is anxiously looking up Conservative White Papers of 10 years ago to see where he went wrong and how he should start again. The next election in the Vale of Glamorgan will be dramatically different, given the Secretary of State's plans.

However, the Secretary of State remained undaunted. At least he is resilient and can take a bold line to win over the House of Commons. He even dragged up the old argument about the Conservative vote against the establishment of the NHS in 1947. No old cliché was left unturned, but I suspect that most hon. Members present today were not even born when that vote was cast.

It is downright foolish to assert that the Conservative party does not want to deliver better public services. Every sensible politician wants to improve them. The myths about cuts and charges are nonsense, and an attempt to detract from what really happened.