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5.23 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): The hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) has sat down after making a speech that was entirely concerned with an extraordinary, rather rapid attack on the history of the Conservative Government. He said that a Conservative Government abolished student maintenance grants. I am afraid that either his memory has gone or his sense of history is failing, because they were abolished by the incoming Labour Government.

The hon. Gentleman's approach, which is a pale echo of that adopted by the Secretary of State for Health, shows that Labour Members are simply not addressing the serious subject before us: the future of the public services. In my opinion, it is the only serious subject that is currently engaging the attention of most of the general public.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke: I shall give way once I have made a little progress—not straight away.

We are in a curious political situation, largely because we have just had a general election and the Government have a huge majority, settling the government of this country for the next few years. A lot of the general public

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have switched off from the party political debate altogether: almost half of them refused to take part in the general election. The one thing that is bringing people back to politics—they will be brought back on other things—is concern about the state of our public services. I do not think that I overstate the case when I say that there is widespread public anger about that. It is easy to detect a national sense of shame about the standards that are being achieved in some of our public services when one reflects that the United Kingdom is one of the wealthier countries in the world.

A source of much of the public's disillusion with politics, politicians and party politics is that they despair of the ability of the political process to produce the improvement in services that they wish. Giving a litany that could have been prepared for the 1997 election—which I shall not debate, although much of it was totally false—or indulging in the cavalier exchange of slogans about the past, which was all the Secretary of State for Health was able to produce, does not remotely respond to that.

Phil Hope: The right hon. and learned Gentleman comes to the House to lecture us about public services when has form in spades, which is a bit rich. I remind him that, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the hospital-building programme came to a grinding halt, and as Secretary of State for Health he abolished free eye tests, so we will take no lessons from him. Does he support his party's view that it will not invest more in health services and will instead charge patients for services? What is his opinion on that?

Mr. Clarke: I had two spells at Health and one at the Treasury. We hugely expanded the amount of money going into the NHS. We combined it with much radical reform, most of which is now grudgingly accepted by the Government.

I have already said that the one thing that I shall not be drawn into is a ludicrous debate in which the Labour party tries to demonise the Conservative party's past. That is a grotesque caricature of our attempts to improve public services. Labour opposed every step we took, most of which it is now adopting.

Mr. John Smith: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will give way and then proceed with my speech. I have one clear memory of the hon. Gentleman. He won a by-election in Vale of Glamorgan by conspiring with the local branch of the British Medical Association to say that my health reforms would involve paying to see a general practitioner. That was grossly untrue. We now have a pale echo of that, whereby the Labour party is trying to put it to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State that he is contemplating charging and cuts in expenditure. I am aware of no such policy. I do not believe that any Conservative has ever put that forward as our policy on public services, and I do not think they ever will.

Mr. Smith: My thanks are on record to the right hon. and learned Gentleman personally for letting me win that

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by-election in 1989, because it was a by-election fought on his reforms of the health service. But that is not my point. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that this debate is about the future of public services. Neither the motion nor the opening speech by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made one reference to the future or to what his party would do instead.

Mr. Clarke: I have already said that I want to move on to the future, yet I am faced with arguments from the past. I should have been interested if the hon. Gentleman had admitted after all these years that the proposition upon which he was first elected—that my reforms involved charging to visit a general practitioner—was false. It was not at any time contemplated. The hon. Gentleman's claim was a parody of what we were proposing, and fortunately the electors of Vale of Glamorgan were eventually able to realise their error and remove him.

Mr. Smith: I am still the Member.

Mr. Clarke: Does the hon. Gentleman still represent the same seat? Good grief. I do not know how he has the nerve to face those who first elected him, but I hope that they have seen through the absurd proposition on the basis of which he was first returned.

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): While the right hon. and learned Gentleman is still dealing with the past and before he moves on to the future, can he tell us by how much the national debt rose under the Major premiership, for a considerable period of which he was Chancellor?

Mr. Clarke: Under the Major premiership, national borrowing continued to fall. During my chancellorship, the public sector borrowing requirement fell regularly. It dropped steadily. We were well on course to balancing the budget.

The Minister has adopted the absurd habit of a Labour Government four or five years into office who continually present slogans and caricatures relating to the position that they inherited. He should come and listen to some of the exchanges between my successor as Chancellor and me. We sometimes have difficulty in disagreeing, because we have considerable regard for each other, but the point is that the present Chancellor on occasion concedes that he inherited an extremely good record from the last Government. It should be no part of a debate about the future of public services to keep repeating the bizarre claim that public finances were not improving, and improving rapidly, when Labour took over. We were then well on course for a balanced budget and healthy public finances.

Mr. Spellar: Is it not a fact that the national debt rose from £175 billion to £350 billion—which is doubling in anyone's money—during the Major premiership, for a considerable part of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Chancellor? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that those figures are correct?

Mr. Clarke: The Major Government, and I as Chancellor, tackled public finances in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party. We brought the public sector borrowing requirement under control, and at no

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stage did the national debt become out of control and unsustainable. When presenting unattractive Budgets, Labour becomes obsessed with taking credit for repayment of the national debt. As I have pointed out in the past, the present Chancellor managed that largely by accident rather than by design, having got his forecasts wrong.

The fact that, in a debate on the future of public services, the Labour party is interested only in the history of the national debt represents a strange transformation; but I will discuss the national debt on a more suitable occasion, as I have already made my case.

I believe that the crisis in the public services is, in most instances, considerably worse than it was when Labour took over in 1997. There were problems then, but they have undoubtedly worsened—certainly in the national health service, and certainly on the railways. Members who shake their heads or, even worse, try to respond by means of what I have already described as a cavalier excursion into the party politics of the 1990s seriously misunderstand the public if they do not realise that that is the feeling out there. If most of my constituents had been able to hear the speech of the Secretary of State for Health today on such an important subject, they would be deeply worried about the outlook for the country. It is time that we saw something more positive emerge from the debate.

In their rare moments of candour, the Labour Government actually seem to admit that they failed to deliver in their first term. Their excuse is that they need another term in which to try to deliver. That admission, when it comes—and not a whisper of it has come today—does a little credit to the Labour Ministers who have been responsible for public services. It amounts to an admission of what I believe to be the case: that the Government were elected as a party with many promises, but no policies of any substance to deal with the public services about which they had been so vociferous when they were attacking us.

The failure to deliver was not the responsibility of the civil service, which Labour's spin doctors usually blame when they are pressed. It was the bright young men who were brought into the Downing street policy unit who failed to deliver. A series of White Papers, initiatives and reviews have been produced, against a backdrop of declining standards in our key public services. That ought to be acknowledged, but it is plainly not being acknowledged.

I agreed with one observation made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) in his extraordinary and, in my view, entirely inadequate speech. He suggested that one thing the Labour party was doing following its latest change of policy—in some areas, particularly the health service—was grudgingly returning to the agenda of the Thatcher-Major reforms. There have been increasing echoes of the course on which we were set in recent ministerial pronouncements, or at least in the behind-the-scenes briefing that accompanies them. For reasons that are understandable if one looks at Back-Bench Labour Members, the Government are in a state of denial and cannot acknowledge that. The Secretary of State for Health had to exhume every cliché in the old Labour book to defend himself, when in fact he is anxiously looking up Conservative White Papers of 10 years ago to see where he went wrong and how he should start again. The next election in the Vale of Glamorgan will be dramatically different, given the Secretary of State's plans.

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However, the Secretary of State remained undaunted. At least he is resilient and can take a bold line to win over the House of Commons. He even dragged up the old argument about the Conservative vote against the establishment of the NHS in 1947. No old cliché was left unturned, but I suspect that most hon. Members present today were not even born when that vote was cast.

It is downright foolish to assert that the Conservative party does not want to deliver better public services. Every sensible politician wants to improve them. The myths about cuts and charges are nonsense, and an attempt to detract from what really happened.

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