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8.23 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I have declared my interests in the register.

When a governing party decides that it wishes to offer heartfelt advice to the Opposition, it is usually beginning to lose it in a big way with the British public. There was a sign of hubris in the remarks of the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). He certainly has a rather different view of local services in our part of the world from mine, although I am glad that there was a slightly veiled threat towards the end of his remarks about what may happen if he does not get the third river crossing, which is much needed, and the proper improvements in our health service, for which we have waited too long. Of course, he did not tell the House that Reading hospital was in the queue to follow the very large Milton Keynes project. That went through under the Conservatives and—sure enough and on cue—when it was completed, the NHS went on to carry out the Reading project. What has happened under the Labour Government would have happened under the Conservatives.

I give the proposal one rather than three cheers. We need a new hospital, but it is a pity that many other health facilities are being closed at the same time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) said, it is a pity that the new hospitals come with a reduction in the number of beds available and with a scale of development that means that there definitely will not be enough beds to meet local demand.

The debate began with the most touching and interesting scenes that we have seen in the Chamber for a little while. Rather like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Secretaries of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and for Health were together on the Government Front Bench. They gave an exceedingly good impression of being great bosom pals—two peas in the pod—as they used to be in the early days of the so-called Blairite project. They were meant to be the two white hopes, at the cutting edge of a technological revolution, rising through the ranks until they displaced the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary and all the other grandees whom the new leader had inherited.

What a difference a year or two has made. If we are to believe the spin in the press, these senior figures of the Blairite project have come to two totally different judgments about where the project is going and about how much support it has from Labour Back Benchers.

In the red corner is the Transport Secretary. He is trying to give the impression—good spinner that he is—that he is in the process of renationalising the railways on the cheap. In fact, he is trying to give the impression that he is renationalising them for absolutely nothing; he has reinvented renationalisation without compensation. I see that the hon. Member for Reading, West hopes that the

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Transport Secretary has done exactly that. The hon. Gentleman looks extremely perky but, if he has studied the small print—with this Government, we must always study the small print—he will know that there is a small snag: renationalisation is not on the horizon.

The Transport Secretary is dealing with a private sector company that had begun to make good progress in investing and developing a better railway in the first five years of privatisation, and Ministers acknowledged that themselves until a year ago. The message was sent to the pagers of Labour Members who were meant to say that there had been a big surge in ridership of the railways, that passenger numbers were up by a third and that freight was up by 40 per cent. They all knew the figures and they trotted them out. They made good salesmen for privatisation. Then the position changed and their pagers told them to write off those achievements.

The Transport Secretary has bankrupted a private sector company by refusing to supply the money that most people reasonably thought would be supplied. He will now discover that it will cost him twice or three times more to try to pump life into a bankrupt Railtrack than it would if he had done a sensible deal at the time of the original negotiations. Railtrack remains a private sector company as it is under the control of private sector accountants who are earning hearty fees.

The stated policy is that Railtrack will be returned to the private sector. There is some argument about the exact nature of the private company that will emerge and interesting troubles will be faced in getting it into the shape that the Transport Secretary would like. However, Labour Members must understand that, on current form and policy, he is not renationalising the company in the way that he suggests.

In the blue corner is the Secretary of State for Health. He takes the view that the Blairite project is on track. He does not think that he needs to make a leftward genuflection to Labour Back Benchers. He thinks that his future is best assured by being the very model of a modern Blairite general. In contrast, the Transport Secretary thinks that he needs an awful lot of support from Back Benchers and that, if he has enough support, he will terrify the Whips and the Prime Minister into promoting him because otherwise he will become a confounded nuisance. The difference in strategy is interesting.

The Secretary of State for Health is no more likely to privatise the health service than the Transport Secretary is to renationalise the railways. Again, we have to look through the Health Secretary's excellent spin. He is not about to say that people will have to pay a fee to go to the doctor or to have an operation and he is not about to sell off all our hospitals as profit-making operations and turn them into companies in the private sector. Nor did Conservative Ministers ever plan or wish to do that. We did not put that to the electorate or do anything similar during those long years in power.

I make a confident prediction that my colleagues and I will not fight the next general election on a ticket of profit-making hospitals that are privatised out of the NHS; nor will we fight it on the ticket of making people pay to go to the doctor. Given that there is meant to be a better spirit in the Chamber during debates, it is disgraceful that such stupid ideas are still being retold by Labour

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Members who say, "Ah ha! Vote Conservative and you will have to pay £10, £20 or £50 to see the doctor." There is not a shred of truth in that, and I hope that Ministers stop saying it.

Mr. Salter: The right hon. Gentleman, with his political career behind him, is known for his frankness. Will he interpret the contents of the memo issued by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), the shadow Treasury spokesman, to the shadow Chancellor, which was copied to the shadow Cabinet? It states:

The right hon. Gentleman has rejected that concept. What does the memo mean?

Mr. Redwood: I have not rejected that concept. Indeed, it is the policy of the Labour party, too. Hon. Members tend to be better off and we all contribute to our health care costs when we pay for prescriptions, eye treatment and dentistry. We pay for chiropody and for drugs that are purchased across the counter in a chemist's shop. The hon. Gentleman should understand that we have a mixed system in this country which has been supported by parties of both persuasions. He is trying to read something into the memo that is not there. It could cover his interpretation, but I am telling him that it does not. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends have not been sitting around in smoke-filled rooms in the shadow Cabinet planning to charge people for visiting the doctor. They have made no such statement; there is no such policy; and we have received no such instruction on our pagers.

I am going further than I should, but I am sure that members of the Conservative Front Bench want to rule nothing in or out because they are having a genuine and thorough policy review. They are listening to people and studying a wide variety of systems abroad. I am confident in predicting—I only predict when I am sure of my ground—that the Conservative party will not go into the next election with the proposal that people should be charged for going to the doctor.

We think that there is one popular principle in the NHS which has been defended by all major parties in government since the founding fathers set it up after the war: if someone needs and wants health care of a stated range it should be free at the point of use. The first limitation on the wonderful promise that it would all be free came from members of the Labour party, the very founding fathers themselves, who decided to impose prescription charges. That policy has become bipartisan. Other changes, such as charges for checks on eyes and teeth, have also become bipartisan. The Labour party has had five years to change them, but it has seen the wisdom of keeping them as charges and of the generous exemptions.

There is no great wish in the country to go far beyond those proposals. Indeed, there is a wish to honour the pledge that if we need and want care, it should be available in reasonable time to a reasonable standard with a reasonable amount of choice, to echo the thoughts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), the former Secretary of State for Social Security, who had good ideas on how choice could be introduced.

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The Secretary of State for Health would be well advised to be a little less pugilistic in such debates and a little more humble about the problems that many constituents face. I receive many letters from people whose GPs and, in due course, consultants at the local hospital have established that they need treatment. They have discovered that it will take a year or more to get the treatment that they need now, not after such a long wait. Quite a few of them, although not particularly rich, are busily privatising their health care because they are so frustrated and in so much pain. They want to get on with their lives. Some of them are of working age and want to get back to work, but the pain and the problem are impeding them from working properly or at all. So they simply cancel the holiday, sell the car, do whatever it takes, and pay a few thousand pounds for the operation in the private sector. That is happening on a large scale; for many people, that fundamental promise, in which I believe and in which I hoped the Government believed, is not being met.

What do Members of Parliament usually discover when we write and complain or represent our constituents' views? I am not going to parade my constituents' problems in the House as they deserve a little confidentiality. However, some of them are suffering and in pain; they need my support, so I write confidentially to a Minister. I do not want to highlight their problems in the press because that is not terribly helpful. The reply always comes back, "Oh well, everything is now wonderful because we have spent £300 million on this, £400 million on that, a billion pounds on something else" and so on. Those numbers are meaningless to my constituents. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk said, there is a growing gap between the way in which the public want the Government to respond to their problems and the way in which the Government are responding in practice.

I invite Ministers to imagine going to their local department store to buy red socks. They would not be impressed if the department store said, "Sorry, we haven't got any. You could have some ties; perhaps in a year's time, we may have some red socks." They would probably not go to the store again or would kick up a fuss and tell it to get some socks. If they wrote a letter of complaint, would they be impressed if the shop's general manager wrote back, "I am sorry that there weren't any red socks, but you will be delighted to know that we spent £0.5 million on the sock department last year and will spend £1 million on it next year. Of course, for that £1 million we cannot guarantee that red socks will be available on the occasions when you may choose to come here, but please keep trying. Please keep taking the pills because one day we may have spent enough to have red socks when you come shopping"?

People are paying an average of £1,000 each in taxes every year, or £4,000 for the average family, for the NHS. Of course, lots of transfers are going on; I am glad that the rich subsidise the poor and that the well subsidise the sick. Sometimes, transfers go the other way; the poor can subsidise the rich because it is possible to be rich and ill, although some Labour Members do not seem to recognise that, or poor and healthy. The main subsidies, however, go in the direction of which we all approve, from rich to poor and from the well to the sick. Ministers should accept that £4,000 for an average family of four is still a lot of money; people would like to get something more for it than they are currently getting.

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An interesting thread has run through the more thoughtful speeches in our debate. How is it that a new Labour Government can sweep to power, pick up where the Conservatives left off, and even, after two or three years, start hurling more money at the problem than the Conservatives, despite missing a couple of years when they first came to power, and yet nothing seem to improve? Indeed, as some of my right hon. Friends argued powerfully, in some ways and in some places, things are deteriorating; the money is not getting through and we are not getting what we want. In my own locality, we are waiting for a new hospital, which will not have nearly enough beds when it finally opens. Over the years, I have urged both Labour and Conservative Ministers to get on with the scheme and allow more beds in the redevelopment. I am always told by health experts that more beds are not needed because there will be more day surgery and hot-bedding. People will zip in and out; they will have a hip operation, then leap out of bed within three hours so that someone else can come in and do the same. Life is not like that; there will be considerable, growing demand for beds in which people can stay overnight or for a couple of days.

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