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Pete Wishart (North Tayside): The Secretary of State says that British hospitals are the finest in Europe. Is he

22 Jan 2002 : Column 766

aware that there have been no new patient admissions to the Victoria Memorial hospital in Glasgow because of acquired hospital infection? Last week, an Indian journalist who investigated the situation in Scottish hospitals concluded that hospitals in India were perhaps better than those in Scotland. What does the right hon. Gentleman say to that?

Mr. Milburn: The hon. Gentleman does his constituents and the country no favours by falling for the trap set for him by the Daily Mail and others. He should go to Afghanistan or India to see what a third-world health care system really looks like. The British health service is being built up with more doctors, nurses and beds.

There are problems with hospital acquired infection and I know that the Minister for Health and Community Care in Scotland takes them extremely seriously. The hon. Gentleman should not pretend that hospital acquired infection is solely a problem for this country's health service. It is associated with the greater range of prescribed antibiotics and other treatments and has occurred throughout the developed world. We have a good plan for dealing with it.

Mr. Ivan Henderson: Is my right hon. Friend aware that last weekend, the first emergency operating theatre ever opened at Colchester General hospital, which is used by my constituents? Is he further aware of the major upgrading of the trauma theatre and that an MRI scanner is being delivered this weekend? Did my right hon. Friend know of the comment by Essex Rivers Healthcare trust in a press statement that it wanted to build an emergency theatre for many years but was hampered by lack of funds? Does my right hon. Friend believe the people working at the front line, who can see this Government deliver, or Conservative Members, who are always running the health service down?

Mr. Milburn: My hon. Friend tells an important story. Investment is being made and reforms are biting. Nobody pretends that everything is fixed but nor should anyone pretend that everything is broken. We know that there is a long way to go. The NHS will require sustained investment over a period of years. Only a fool or a Liberal Democrat believes that a few years of extra investment will put right decades of underinvestment.

My hon. Friend may have seen the report published by the NHS Modernisation Board a week or so ago. Not even the hon. Member for Woodspring can claim that that board is stacked with cronies from the Labour party. Its members are from the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the royal medical colleges, Unison and patients' organisations. The board told the truth about the NHS today. It has profound problems but progress is coming through. In the past year alone, there has been a net increase of 10,000 nurses and the number of hospital beds rose for the first time in 30 years. More than nine out of 10 cancer patients are now seen within two weeks, when they used to wait months. In just one year, there have been almost 5,000 more heart operations and there are 17 per cent. more heart doctors. We do not claim that every problem is solved, but nor should anyone claim that progress is not under way.

Mrs. Browning: The right hon. Gentleman may recall my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for

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Woodspring about the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital. Will he please explain, because the doctors in my constituency would be interested in his answer, why a consultant orthopaedic surgeon feels obliged to write to a GP:

It is not that the surgeons are unsympathetic to long waiters, but clearly, in terms of clinical priority, the Secretary of State's judgment is now deemed to be more important than that of consultant surgeons or GPs.

Mr. Milburn: If the hon. Lady thinks that clinical need is as important as I do—

Mrs. Browning: Not me—the doctors.

Mr. Milburn: The hon. Lady raised the point, not the doctor. If the hon. Lady thinks that clinical need is as important as I do, why, when she was in government, did she not urge the then Health Secretary to do what this Health Secretary has done: put more money into shortening waiting times and improving cancer services and heart services?

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Milburn: Oh, there is a posse of them. They are all the same, really; I will take that one.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. The Secretary of State is planning a £150 million reorganisation in my constituency area. Is he aware that 15,000 people have marched against that proposal, because it will involve taking away our A and E, threaten the cancer centre currently located in Canterbury and, in the view of no fewer than 12 consultants who turned out at a few hours' notice, ruin the standard of health care in our area?

Mr. Illsley: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Milburn: It is very tempting, but let me just deal with the point that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) raises, because it is very important. I know that there is concern in his constituency and that he joined many of his constituents in a sit-down protest the other day. Some of my hon. Friends would say that that was the best place for him, but that would be extremely uncharitable.

I know that there is concern in the east Kent area about the situation. The hon. Gentleman has raised those concerns with me more than once. I will of course look at the issues, but he should not pretend that these issues have been brought about as a consequence of some sort of financial decision-making structure; they have not. As the hon. Gentleman knows, they have been brought about and led by clinical decision making. Sometimes that raises profoundly difficult issues in terms of access to local services. It raised difficult issues for the previous Government. It raises difficult issues for the present Government but we should not try to duck them.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Milburn: Now, who else? That one there.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I was interested in the right hon. Gentleman's statement on

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investment in the railways. Can he commit the Government today to the £500 million that will be necessary to electrify properly the line from Hastings to London to enable the new rolling stock that has already been ordered by Connex to run? Without that commitment, the new rolling stock, which is detailed in the strategic rail plan of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, is completely worthless.

Mr. Milburn: I have got the point. That is an issue for the Transport Secretary. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] We actually have a very good Transport Secretary. [Interruption.] Oh yes, we have a very good Transport Secretary and I know that he will more than happily reply to the hon. Gentleman's question.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Milburn: Who is next? That one.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): May I bring the Secretary of State back to the health service? Will he explain why a written answer that I received from his Department confirms that more than 35 trusts, including my local trust, have more than 10 per cent. of their patients suspended from the waiting list for an in-patient operation? Will he answer the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made and accept the National Audit Office's recommendation for an inquiry into those trusts where there is huge suspicion of waiting list fiddles?

Mr. Milburn: The hon. Gentleman is slightly behind the times. We have actually gone further than the National Audit Office suggested. We have said that in future the Audit Commission, the other Government watchdog on public spending, will be able to spot-check waiting lists, not just in his trust but in any trust that it chooses in the country. But let the hon. Gentleman not fall for the fallacy being peddled by the hon. Member for Woodspring, that the reduction in waiting lists comes about as a result of fiddling figures. It does not. It comes about as a result of treating patients. Half a million more patients are being treated every year in the NHS.

In health, the extra doctors, nurses and beds are providing shorter waiting times for patients. In education, the extra teachers and smaller classes are improving standards for pupils. In our cities and on our streets, the record increase in police numbers is helping to reduce crime. In transport, despite the obvious problems on the railways, more people are travelling by train, as well as by bus, than ever before. We do not say for a moment that our public services are as good as we want them to be, but the difference between us and the Conservatives is simple enough: we want our public services to succeed; they do not believe that they can ever succeed. We are putting in the resources; if they had the chance, they would take out the resources.

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