Like other hon. Members, I welcome the debate and congratulate Andrew George on securing it.
The background to the deficits in the NHS is Britain's transformation as an economic power. The previous Conservative Administration took this country from its status as the sick man of Europe and an economic basket case to, in 1997, the status of the most powerful economy in Europe—more powerful than any other in the area. That provided an unprecedented opportunity to transform not only health outcomes but outcomes in a welter of policy areas that would affect the most vulnerable and the weakest in society.
The health opportunity—the opportunity to transform our health care—was, I think, particularly great. To give the Government credit, as other hon. Members have, it could be said that perhaps it has taken a Labour Government to make the record investments in the NHS that have been made, notwithstanding the large increases in spending above inflation that took place under the Conservative Government; but how has the opportunity been used? How has the transformation of the British economy that was brought about by the previous Conservative Government and inherited by the present Government been used to improve health outcomes? Unfortunately, despite their being one of the Government's key targets, health inequalities have in many cases widened and worsened despite the record sums that have been available thanks to the transformation of the economy.
The Government's report, "Tackling Health Inequalities", said that the gap in life expectancy between the bottom fifth and the population as a whole widened by 2 per cent. for males and by 5 per cent. for females between 1997–99 and 2001–03. It goes on to deal with the gap in the infant mortality rate between the poorest and the general population, which was 19 per cent. higher for the poorest in 2001–03 compared to 13 per cent. in 1997–99.
The NHS, which is now going into crisis, has had record spending put into it, but the very group for which one would have thought the Labour Government would most make a difference—and indeed they promised that they would make a difference to that group—has been let down. In fact, Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the university of Sheffield, has said:
"This is the first Labour government that has failed to narrow the gap. It is astonishing after eight years and making reducing health inequality a key target that we are in this position."
Not only is the health service now in financial crisis, with the chief executive forced out ahead of his own timetable, and not only is it recognised that there are hundreds of job losses around the country, but we actually have wider health inequalities at a time of record spending.
This is a true financial crisis. Arguments that it is less than 1 per cent. of the spend are not matched by the reality on the ground, or by the top-slicing that hon. Members have already referred to, which has effectively punished those who have managed to balance their books. That is a direct result of the way in which the Government have interfered, using target culture and central interference in the NHS.