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Miss Johnson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Duncan: No.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear that he will not give way.

Mr. Duncan: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In answer to a question from, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), the Prime Minister said that waiting lists will begin to fall by the end of this year.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Duncan: No, I am running out of time.

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We shall examine the figures on 1 January 1999 to see whether the Government's delayed fulfilment of this pledge will begin to happen. [Interruption.] The Minister is laughing. The only reason he is laughing is that he hopes that he will get out of this Department so that he does not have to pick up the pieces. I hope that the Prime Minister did not give him an early pledge that he would be promoted.

I look at the faces across the Chamber, and I wonder whether there is anyone left in the Labour party who is prepared to exercise his conscience. In due course, the Labour party will divide into old rebels and new robots. At least the old rebels have come into politics with an opinion, but they so despise their Prime Minister that it will take only a short time before they break ranks. The new robots, who have no idea why they are here, must look at their bleepers to know what they have to do. If there is a conscience left among Labour Members, some of them at least should join us in the Lobby tonight.

The Prime Minister's credibility is most at stake. He is not here: he never is. He spoke in almost Messianic terms: he talked about making a vow, making a pledge, making a covenant with the people, making a promise. He spoke like the Messiah, as if delivering a message from the mountain top. He promised a better health service. Where is he? He is never here. What would he say if he were here?

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Telford): He would say, "This is rubbish."[Laughter.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard.

Mr. Duncan: And I will be. Labour Members do not like hearing about what they will have to admit to their constituents. No manner of diversion will distract us from the fact that the Government have broken their pledge.

If the Prime Minister were here, he would say, "Suffer unto me little children, and I will make you wait. Come unto me all of you who are ill, and I will make you queue. Come unto me all who are old and ill, and I will make you go to the back of the line." This is a cruel betrayal of people who expected better. They were deceived, because they were led to believe that, as an early pledge, waiting lists would be brought down. If hon. Members have a conscience, they will vote with us tonight.

6.47 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Alan Milburn): I hope that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) feels better for that. It is always better to get things off one's chest. Just a fortnight ago, when the hon. Gentleman made his debut at the Dispatch Box, he promised that the Conservative health team would be mature and constructive in debate--I think those were the words the hon. Gentleman used. I know that this debate is about waiting, but we are still waiting for that to happen. Thankfully, my hon. Friends have supplied the maturity and reflection that have been so sadly lacking from Conservative Members.

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As the subject of waiting lists has inevitably dominated the debate, I should make it clear at the outset that those who say that waiting lists do not matter--such as the hon. Members for Orpington (Mr. Horam), for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)--have got it wrong, for two reasons. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) kindly quoted from an article that I wrote in the Health Service Journal, in which I repeated what I had said on previous occasions: the longest average waiting times for treatment are for operations such as cataract and hip replacement operations.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) and for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock) said, people who have to wait a long time for treatment have their lives put on hold.

Mr. Simon Hughes: That is because of waiting times.

Mr. Milburn: Cutting waiting lists will cut waiting times. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, the Tory Front-Bench team and the hon. Member for Southend, West have not grasped that essential point.

We have already made progress on cutting waiting times, and we will continue to do so--especially for patients who are waiting for urgently needed cancer treatment. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, and, indeed, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), raised the case of a boy who apparently waited 19 months for treatment. I wish that the right hon. Lady had checked the facts before coming to the Dispatch Box.

As our amendment rightly points out, on 31 March no patients were waiting more than 18 months for treatment, and that includes the boy who was mentioned. He will have an operation within the next few days, as the NHS trust had always planned. Had the right hon. Lady raised the matter sensibly with the Department, rather than trying, and failing, to make political capital out of it, we would have sorted it out immediately.

Mr. Duncan: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Milburn: In a moment.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked me to tell hon. Members on both sides of the House that, if there are any other such cases, we will gladly deal with them personally. When we say that we will cut the number of 18-month waiters, we mean it.

Mr. Duncan: Will the Minister confirm that the NHS is commissioning operations in private hospitals in order to bring down waiting lists?

Mr. Milburn: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the NHS has been doing that for years. What is new is that this Government have instructed health authority and other commissioners always to use NHS capacity first, if it is there.

There is a second reason why cutting waiting lists is important. The hon. Gentleman did not refer to that part of my article. The longer waiting lists are, the more people question the ability of the NHS to cope. It is no coincidence that, if hon. Members drive only a few

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hundred yards, they will see enormous posters advertising the wares of private health insurance companies. Those companies recruit on the basis of one simple fact: waiting for treatment. Long waiting lists are the recruiting sergeant of private medicine.

That may not matter to those on the Tory Front Bench, but I can tell the House that it matters to the millions of people who have to use the NHS day in, day out, and who want it to continue as a universal service funded from general taxation.

Dr. Harris: Waiting lists can be cut if operations are not offered. If the private health sector recruits by means of longer waiting lists, why is it recruiting through health authorities that no longer offer operations for uncomplicated varicose veins or for infertility after nought, one, two or three cycles? The Minister should think carefully about whether there is now a universal service for some of these so-called non-urgent procedures.

Mr. Milburn: The difference between my party and the hon. Gentleman's is that we want a universal health service that provides fair access to high-quality treatment in all parts of the country. I hope that, when we announce our proposals for improving quality and fair access--as we shortly will--the hon. Gentleman and his party will welcome them.

Cutting waiting lists will be the single most important way of rebuilding public confidence in the NHS after all the damage done to it by Tory Governments. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), we will get waiting lists down by both investing and modernising. The two go together.

We have earmarked an extra £500 million so that waiting lists will be lower in April next year than the record level we inherited from April last year. The cash will pay for extra operations, extra staff and extra beds, and will mean the biggest annual increase in the number of hospital operations that the NHS has ever seen--as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said--as well as an extra 3,000 hospital beds across the country. That includes 450 in this city, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) pointed out.

This morning, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton issued a press release. I am afraid that he is rather prone to that. It demanded that we publish a full list of extra beds and extra activity. That list has been published. Let me ease the hon. Gentleman's doubts by telling him about some of the extra investment that is taking place--

Mr. Duncan rose--

Mr. Milburn: I will give way in a moment. First, I want to soothe the hon. Gentleman's fears and ease his suspicions. I want to bring him on side. He asked for the information this morning.

In Leicestershire, an extra £4.8 million will be provided. It will pay for an extra 30 beds; it will also pay for an extra 250 plastic surgery treatments, an extra 407 ear, nose and throat treatments, an additional consultant, 1,300 gastro-enterology treatments, two paediatric consultants and 150 extra paediatric treatments, additional staff for 200 extra ophthalmology treatments, one oral surgeon, 143 extra oral surgery treatments, one orthopaedic surgeon, 1,171 extra orthopaedic treatments,

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extra staff for general surgery and anaesthetic, Saturday opening at Leicester hospital, and 1,568 extra general surgery treatments.

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