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9.22 pm

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): I hope that my tones are not quite so measured--I cannot say that I am prepared to sit here and take lessons from the Tory party about any health issues.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hesford), I asked myself why the motion had been tabled. My first thought was that there is a bandwagon, and that Tories cannot not resist jumping on to every bandwagon that comes along.

My impression was strengthened by the comments of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). If this is not a bandwagon, it is certainly sensational. Somehow, he developed a selective memory. He told us about his letter. I was quite amused by it--it showed the Opposition spokesman supporting the Government and deploring the scaremongering about MMR. Then, he was unequivocally happy to back the Government in their fight against that scaremongering. However, the hon. Gentleman suddenly forgot about that and, a year later, qualified what he had said. If that is not jumping on a bandwagon, I do not know what is. [Interruption.] If I am wrong, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) will be able to tell us that the Conservatives are backing the Government's campaign to ensure that as many children as possible are given the MMR vaccine. The Secretary of State made it clear that not doing so would put children's lives at risk, and that it would be irresponsible to act otherwise.

I then asked myself why people should concentrate on MMR. Part of the reason is sensationalism. I noted headlines about not just MMR but CJD, sexually transmitted diseases, asylum seekers--anything that feeds prejudice. I am not prepared to enter into a mealy-mouthed debate; I will say my piece, and not mince

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words. It is bizarre to have the Tories lecturing us about anything. They have all developed a selective memory; they seem to have forgotten those 18 years.

There are lots of problems and challenges in the health service and lots of things that we have to put right. Cancer kills 127,000 people a year in this country. That is a matter of public health that has not been mentioned in the debate. Heart disease and strokes kill 214,000 people a year; accidents kill 10,000 people a year; and 4,500 people die by committing suicide each year. All those are public health matters that have not been mentioned. One of the reasons for the Conservatives concentrating on a very narrow subject is that they do not want to debate the big picture because it paints them in a bad light.

Mr. Hammond: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but the reason for focusing on a narrow area is that there is a large degree of consensus on these matters. When my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Mr. Fox) opened the debate, he made it clear that he wanted to focus on the issues on which there is a large degree of consensus across the House.

Mr. Heppell: It is only fair that the electorate should know what we agree on. If, at the end of the debate, Conservative Members want to tell the House that they agree with the Government on this issue, fine. However, it is also worth while pointing out the matters on which they do not agree with us. Okay, there are problems, and they need to be tackled. The Conservatives have conveniently forgotten that they did not tackle those problems for 18 years, and that they also created others. The reason why the Conservatives will never have the same commitment to the national health service and to public health as the Government is simple: we support the national health service in practice, but we also support it in principle. The Tories do not. That is a fact.

I was born in 1948--the same year that the national health service was created. We have something else in common: we are both products of the Labour party. The Labour party created the NHS against Tory opposition. The Tories did not oppose only the detail, the mechanics, the structure and the cost of the national health service; they opposed it in principle. They were ideologically opposed to the national health service, and if we scratch a Tory nowadays we find that they still are. That is why they starved the NHS of the resources needed for it to thrive and grow during those 18 years.

The average real-terms growth in the NHS during the Tories 18 years was 3 per cent. We have now doubled that and are putting in 6 per cent. That is 6 per cent. not just for one year, but for three years. By 2004, the national health service will have received three such increases, which is an unprecedented investment by the Government.

Hon. Members do not have to take my word for that. You may have thought, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I was reading a newspaper earlier; in fact, I was looking at a document published by my local health authority. It is worth referring to it to illustrate the difference between the Conservatives and the Labour Government, in terms of the resources that have been put into the national health service. Under the headline "Making a difference this winter", it describes the extra money that has been put in to get the service through the winter crisis. It states:

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It is right. The NHS is changing for the better.

The document goes on to describe the new ear, nose and throat centre at Queen's medical centre, and the £6.2 million state-of-the-art accident and emergency department being built there. No wonder Prince Charles always goes to Queen's medical centre when he falls off his horse.

The document goes on to describe gearing up for the winter, social care, the boost in critical care funding, NHS Direct and the extra money put in for the flu vaccine. I could go on and on. There are other things that the document does not mention--for example, the new scanner at Queen's medical centre or the new treatment for cancer at City hospital. All those improvements have happened in the short time that we have had a Labour Government. The people of this country were deprived of such improvements under the previous Government.

The debate was deliberately narrowed for two reasons: to grab headlines and to ensure that the broader picture was not discussed. The Tories have a record on public health that none of them can be proud of. Our record is not perfect, but we have made a start and we are going to get there. We are going to turn the NHS into not just what it was before the 18 years of Tory rule, but what it was when it was founded--the envy of the world.

9.30 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I wrote a note to myself saying that the tone of this brief debate was by and large measured and constructive, but that was before the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) made his contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) set the tone at the outset, and that tone was reciprocated--initially, at least--by the Secretary of State, who gave a measured response. Rather later in his speech, he moved off the subject that my hon. Friend had addressed and read out a section from his draft election manifesto. We have lots of opportunities to discuss issues on which there is scope for confrontation across the House, but tonight's debate represented an attempt to hold a constructive exchange on issues on which there is a good deal of consensus.

The hon. Members for Wirral, West (Mr. Hesford) and for Nottingham, East asked why we chose to hold the debate. I make no apology for reiterating that one of the Opposition's jobs is to raise issues that cause public concern or consternation so that they can be debated and responded to in the House. Governments of any colour may not always like that because it implies a measure of accountability, but it is no use Labour Members dismissing as scaremongering any Opposition attempt to use the proper forum to debate issues that are clearly of great public concern and are receiving an airing in the media, perhaps accompanied by misinformation. This is the proper place to hold a measured debate, to raise the issues and to allow the Government to respond to them.

I say to those hon. Members who raised such points that today's debate has no single immediate cause. We are responding to a growing sense of unease in the country that infectious diseases, which we thought had been consigned to history, are once again posing a threat and

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that the response to the threat, and the public's perception of it, is inadequate. The price that we pay for maintaining the upper hand in the battle against infectious and contagious diseases is eternal vigilance. We question not the Government's commitment to maintaining that fight, but their tactics for delivery and whether they have perhaps allowed themselves to be distracted from that most fundamental of Government health responsibilities.

There is a serious debate to be had on a serious subject, and it is not all gloom. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring acknowledged the apparent success of the meningitis C vaccination campaign--I am happy to do so as well--which appears to have nipped in the bud an extremely disturbing growth in reported cases. We are also happy to acknowledge that, after a rocky start, the flu vaccination campaign this winter has been a positive triumph of the will and effort of people working in the national health service over formidable logistical obstacles. That programme was largely delivered as a result of their commitment and hard work.

Those are the successes and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring said, they show that, where the commitment and the political will are present and when the Government work with the mood of public opinion, great things can be achieved. However, tempting as it is to dwell on the successes, our duty of vigilance requires us also to focus on some less successful aspects of public health policy and to articulate to the Government the frustrations and concerns that people up and down the country clearly feel. Nowhere is that public frustration and concern clearer than over the triple-dose MMR vaccine, which, inevitably, has been the centrepiece of the debate.

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