Clause 3 — Functions of the Centre

Part of Health (Wales) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:24 pm on 9th January 2003.

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Shadow Secretary of State for Wales 3:24 pm, 9th January 2003

We have heard a lot about the strengths of devolution, and in all honesty I cannot say that the NHS in Wales is a prime example of it. However, I heard the Secretary of State for Wales on the Frost programme on Sunday trying to entice Sir David Frost with the news that, thanks to devolution, he can look forward soon to receiving a concessionary bus pass. There was a look of bemusement on Sir David's face at the prospect of catching the No. 13 bus from Swansea to Townhill. I am not sure what he thought the Secretary of State was saying.

The Minister has just spoken about the procedure that the Bill followed, which we certainly welcome. Pre-legislative scrutiny is important, particularly as, time and again, we find our opportunities for detailed consideration of Bills further constrained. Perhaps the Minister should have bought the forge hammer from Mr. Lei Leiu of China so that he could have knocked the Bill into better shape. However, we know that the Bill has a further journey to make. Judging by its consideration in Committee and in the House today, the Government should not be so obsessed with timetabling. There is a great deal of good will on this side of the House towards Bills that genuinely deserve support.

I echo the Minister's comments about Mr. Griffiths, who chaired the Standing Committee well. Of course, he takes a great interest in this area of the NHS in Wales, and has much experience of it. We wish him well for his retirement at the end of this Parliament.

We know that the Government intended the Bill to be much bigger, but parts of it were hived off to the NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill. Problems will arise from that Bill, not this one. I have huge reservations about that new bureaucratic system, with five health authorities being replaced by 22 local health boards and other bodies.

We know that the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills said yesterday in an interview that politicians should be more credible and admit when they have made mistakes. This is one area in which Welsh politicians and UK politicians could achieve more credibility with the public by admitting that they have made a big mistake with those reforms. A report out this week says that #8.5 million of savings must be made in the NHS in Wales if the reforms are to be cost-neutral, and that is without the #15 million of transitional cost in setting up the new bodies, so there will be problems with that bureaucracy.

Returning to the Bill before the House, we support the retention of CHCs in Wales. We supported their retention in England as well, and we would have welcomed that measure if Labour Members had voted for it. We tried in our amendments to give CHCs more independence. The issue is not whether we should trust the Welsh Assembly to retain power over CHCs but whether we should ensure that CHCs, which are the whistleblowers, watchdogs and champions of patients, will be given independence. They would not then need to worry that the Welsh Assembly could change their name, savage them or even abolish them, which the Bill gives the Assembly the power to do.

We know that CHCs will be hugely busy. Headlines randomly selected from newspapers make that clear. One says XHutt again fails to meet targets" and another, from the South Wales Evening Post, says XWoman, 82, stranded in hospital". Another headline is, XHealth wait deadline passes"—a reference to people who had to wait more than 18 months for orthopaedic surgery. I know that the Minister said that the Welsh Assembly had made advances in that key area, but I am afraid that in some parts of Wales the waits are still huge. Other headlines are, XHealth board shake-up costs 'rise'"—a reference to the fact that an imperceptible improvement in the service will cost a lot—and, XNursing vacancies plague Welsh NHS".

Those are important headlines. One can hardly open a newspaper in Wales without reading a story about the dire problems faced by the NHS. In Wales, more money is spent per head of population than in England—#822 in Wales compared with #740 in England, although waiting lists in England are lower than in Wales. Since 1997, the number of beds in Wales has been reduced, and both in-patient and out-patient waiting lists have gone up. Total activity has gone down, as has elective activity. I referred earlier to University hospital of Wales, which has stopped non-emergency operations until February because of winter problems. I have talked about orthopaedic surgery. In Gwent, 1,200 patients have waited more than three years to see a consultant for the first time, which is not acceptable or humane. Waiting lists are also rising in several other key areas.

At the same time, bed blocking is a problem in Wales, and we have not heard any solution to the issue. Local authority care homes are closing, which will add even further to the problems of the NHS in Wales. We know that the health service is scouring the world for nurses and that more patients are being sent abroad or to England for their operations, which is causing a huge problem for trusts' budgets in England. As I said, trusts are spending more in Wales than in England. It is terrible that the NHS in Wales faces all those dire problems, and I feel sorry for the dedicated staff who are dogged by politicians, whether from Westminster or Wales. They are being prevented from getting on with the job that they sincerely want to do and which was their reason for going into the NHS in the first place.

I do not believe that the Government woke up one day and said, XLet's see how we can wreck the NHS," but that is exactly what has happened since they came to power in 1997. As for the Bill, we wish it well. We hope that when it goes to the other place, peers will look at some of our suggestions and table their own amendments. Indeed, I hope that the Government in a quieter moment will reflect on our suggestions and amend the Bill in the other place themselves. However, we wish the Bill well, and I do not wish to delay its progress any further.