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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have certainly not seen the hon. Gentleman's article—neither can I hear his comments.

Mr. Brown: I have been too busy reading the shadow Chancellor's speeches to read the hon. Gentleman's article, but I assure him that I will do so.

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Opposition Members know perfectly well that we have embarked on a programme of NHS reform. Seventy-five per cent. of the money is going back to primary care trusts; we are renegotiating contracts for doctors, including consultants, and nurses; and there is a programme of reform at the centre, where we are devolving power to the localities.

Mr. Howard: Centralising.

Mr. Brown: Ah! The shadow Chancellor now draws me into a discussion of his view of the national health service as a Stalinist creation. I believe that a Conservative party that holds that it can describe the health service not just as centralist but as a Stalinist creation is making a very big mistake. The shadow Chancellor is saying that when the service was created it was wrong, at that time. That is what he is saying: it is a Stalinist creation, and therefore it was wrong even in 1948. The Conservative party is now abandoning a consensus that was accepted by Sir Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Lady Thatcher, all of whom believed that we should not abandon the national health service.

The debate on hypothecation will continue, but I think all parties—and the shadow Chancellor, representing the last Government, took the same view—would not want to make the funding of the NHS dependent on, or hostage to, the economic cycle. They would not want one tax relating to changes in behaviour to make the service a victim of a situation that it should not have to live through, when what we want is sustainable, long-term funding.

That is what tonight's debate is about. We believe in a national health service that is free at the point of use; it is clear that the Opposition now do not. We believe in a tax-funded national health service; it is clear that the Opposition want a system of private health insurance. We believe in more investment in the NHS; the Opposition want to cut investment.

I say this of the shadow Chancellor: he got every major decision wrong in his past career in politics. [Interruption.] Oh, yes. He was the brains behind the poll tax. He defended the Conservative Government when the interest rate was 15 per cent. He is the man who said that a minimum wage would cost a million jobs—and it created a million jobs. He is the Minister who said that we were the worst-placed country to deal with the economic difficulties around the world—and people know that this year we have been the best-placed country to do that.

The shadow Chancellor has also got it wrong on the national health service. He will live to regret a debate in which he has refused to rule out charging in the service. Labour wants to build the national health service; it is clear that the Conservatives want to destroy it. Tonight, Members should vote to build it.

Mr. Keith Simpson: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will we, at some stage during the debate, hear a speech from the Chancellor about the Government's policy?

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair.

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8.13 pm

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): At this point, we should remember where the debate started back in 1997, when the Conservatives, after years of under- investment, left the NHS in truly dire straits. We now know why: it was because they believe the NHS to be a Stalinist institution.

Do the Conservatives not realise that Stalin killed millions of people, whereas the NHS and its staff strain every sinew to save millions of people? NHS staff—doctors, nurses, ancillaries and the rest—would be appalled to hear first the so-called leader of that party and then the shadow Chancellor argue that theirs is a Stalinist organisation. How far from the truth could that be? How can people now believe that the Conservative party is committed to maintaining a national health service that is free at the point of use, and serving every person in the country?

Back in 1997, Labour argued that it had 24 hours to save the NHS. That may be the case at the next election: it was made plain this evening that a Conservative Government, if elected, would abolish the national health service as we know it. Whatever else Labour may have done, however, it failed to save the NHS in 24 hours, or even in a number of years. Its commitment to stick to Conservative spending plans, without even the annual review that the Conservatives would have delivered, led to a fall in the proportion of national wealth spent on the NHS during its early years in office. As a result, doctors and nurses were not trained—which resulted in the Government's current problem.

The error was repeated at the last general election, which the Government fought on the basis that the NHS had effectively been rescued, and that their spending plans would deliver the goods. They have had to admit that they got that wrong too. The Liberal Democrats argued throughout that it would only be possible to find the investment needed for the NHS if the Government faced head-on the raising of taxes that was necessary to increase the proportion of gross domestic product spent on the service.

Let us not give the Government too much credit for their change of mind. We welcome it, but we should recall the blistering attacks launched by both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on any Members—including those on their own side—who argued that, in the long run, the NHS could secure the investment it needed only if the Government were prepared to invest a higher proportion of GDP, and that that meant facing the tax issue, if the economy was to be managed properly.

In July 1997, just after the general election, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats asked:

All that the Prime Minister could say was:

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Any Government inherit the spending plans of their predecessors, but not many choose to implement them. That mistake has haunted the present Government to this day.

Chris Grayling: Is it the policy of the hon. Gentleman's party to support the principle of raising health care spending by the state to the European average? If so, does his party support the substantial tax increases that would, it appears, be required?

Matthew Taylor: The hon. Gentleman may have been diverted from this during the election campaign, but our manifesto made both those promises.

More recently, the Government proved still to be making the same mistakes. [Interruption.] I gave the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) as clear an answer as anyone could give: my answers were yes and yes. I know that Conservative Members find it difficult to give any answers themselves, but they should at least understand when someone else is giving an answer—although I suppose that lack of use of the "yes" bit of the brain, or come to that the "no" bit, and limiting oneself to the "don't know" bit, makes it hard to give or indeed receive a straight answer.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way again, very briefly?

Matthew Taylor: I will in due course.

The error to which I referred, however, did not occur just in 1997; it rolled forward. In April 2000 the present leader of the Liberal Democrats, at a time when the Chancellor was delivering a cut in income tax, challenged the Prime Minister thus:

We now know what the answer was. No, it would not assist the process. The Chancellor, having cut income tax in April 2000, now tells us that we may need to face tax increases.

Things did not change in the election of June 2001 either. Labour consistently denied that more money needed to be raised through tax; indeed, the Chancellor could not have been more explicit. That raises a serious question about the honesty of the Government and their approach to the wider electorate. It seems hard to believe that things have changed so dramatically between the election in June and the pre-Budget statement at the end of November. The Chancellor says that it is not due to the change in economic circumstances, so what exactly is it due to? The wheels have come off new Labour's bandwagon and they are all going in entirely different directions.

On spending, 18 months ago, the Prime Minister jumped the Chancellor on the "Frost" programme. The Prime Minister promised:

but immediately the Chancellor worked to obfuscate: it was aims, targets, ambitions, never a commitment. Again, in the pre-Budget report last week, he hinted, flirted but remained no more than a tease.

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Again, it took the Prime Minister to let the cat out of the bag. Last Wednesday, at Prime Minister's questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, asked the key question, which incidentally the leader of the Conservative party failed even to spot. My right hon. Friend said:

The Prime Minister said:

Ever since, the policy of the Government has been in total confusion. It seemed for five days that that had been precisely not the point of the Chancellor's speech. He rushed to The Sun, which said:

Perhaps the Chancellor can clarify that.

By Sunday, the Prime Minister had buckled under the force of his Chancellor's will. The Independent on Sunday reported:

not quite what we thought he said at Prime Minister's questions—

At today's lobby briefing, the Prime Minister's spokesman went out of his way to say that the Prime Minister had said that it was only the Government's aim. I quote from the e-mail briefing that we received:

He said that those were important processes that had to be completed before the Government could tie themselves to a figure. He added:

Now we know how to get a statement from the Chancellor. When it becomes the Prime Minister's aim, when he backtracks, the Chancellor comes charging forward and says, "No, this is our committed policy." If only the Prime Minister 18 months ago had not committed himself to it on the Frost programme; we would probably have heard it previously from the Chancellor.

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