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House of Lords

Monday, 17th January 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Australia: Centenary

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are their plans to mark the centenary this year of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg noble Lords' pardon for keeping your Lordships waiting. I could reply to the noble Baroness without awaiting the brief, but it is probably better that I have the Answer and read it.

Australia will launch its centenary celebrations with Australia Week in the UK this July. A key event will be a parliamentary function in the Royal Gallery on 6th July marking the centenary of the passage of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in July 1900. Both the British and Australian Prime Ministers will attend. To mark the centenary, we plan to make a substantial contribution to a memorial in Canberra to Australia's democracy and Britain's contribution to it.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which is good news. Is the noble Baroness aware that there is another big event to be celebrated this year in Australia? I refer to the sesquicentenary--the 150th anniversary--of the University of Sydney. Is she also aware that there is a strong link between the University of Sydney and the Commonwealth as the first Australian Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, had previously represented the University of Sydney in the New South Wales legislature? Is the noble Baroness further aware that Sir Henry Parkes, after whom the town of Parkes is named, was one of the fathers of federation in Australia?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it gives me great delight to reply yes, yes and yes. It is of particular delight to us that we have the advantage of celebrating with Australia this momentous occasion. It gives us special delight that Sydney will be so celebrated and recognised for its work in this field.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to congratulate the organising committee of the Sydney Olympics on its commitment to the spirit of the Olympics in its attempts to put first the interests of sportsmen and women? Will the noble Baroness also commend the officials in the DTI and the Foreign Office who have worked so hard and

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dedicatedly to ensure the success of the UK Sydney Olympics Task Force which has led the world in promoting business opportunities for UK companies in major sporting events?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it is a refreshing beginning for a Monday because, again, I agree wholeheartedly with the congratulations given by the noble Lord.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is good that in the recent referendum the Australian populace voted for the retention of the monarchy and for the retention of its ties with Britain?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, this is of course a matter for the Australians themselves to decide. However, the connection with Australia remains firm. It is a delight that it continues unchallenged in the same form.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, can the Minister think of a way in which the great achievements of the Australian armed forces in East Timor--they have been successful in restoring law and order and in preparing for the transfer to an independent state--can be associated with the centenary?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, as I said earlier, I am delighted today to be able to agree so far with every speaker. The Australian efforts were very well received by us all. We expressed gratitude and approval. It is a delight that in so many forums we continue to be ad idem and to work together in such harmony.

NHS Waiting Lists

2.40 p.m.

Earl Howe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress they are making to fulfil their pledge to cut National Health Service waiting lists by 100,000.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we are well on course to achieve the 100,000 reduction promised by the end of this Parliament. The latest data (for end November 1999) show that the number of patients on the National Health Service waiting lists is now 87,000 below the March 1997 level.

Earl Howe: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Government's obsession with reducing waiting list numbers obliges doctors to treat simpler and less urgent cases merely because that will bring down the numbers more quickly? Is the noble Lord further aware that since May 1997 the number of people waiting to see a consultant for more than 13 weeks has increased by more than a quarter of a million? Does

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that not indicate that, far from boasting about the waiting list initiative, the Government should abandon it forthwith?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, no. As one of the contributory factors in modernising the NHS, it is important that we attack waiting lists, as we are doing. Clinical priorities are a matter of clinical judgment. Emergencies will always be treated at once and urgent treatments will always be given priority.

Lord Laming: My Lords, does the Minister agree that reducing waiting lists in the NHS often depends on the availability of adequate social care services? The commitment to increase the finance for the NHS is welcome. However, does the noble Lord agree that there needs also to be a guaranteed increase in the availability of social care?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, of course a number of factors are involved in developing a proper and appropriate response to the need to reduce waiting lists. One of them, as the noble Lord has just mentioned, is the facilities and support available in the community for people who may then be discharged from hospital. Resources for local government and social services are an important part of our general improvement of public services.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, does not the Question go to the heart of the management of the health service? The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is well-regarded in all parts of the House, as the Minister is aware. Would it not have been much better if the Prime Minister and his spokesman had responded to the criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, rather than trying to bully him into retracting them?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Winston put his finger on the matter when he spoke of the horrendous legacy left by the previous government. That legacy was a divisive internal market: hospitals, doctors and nurses forced to compete with each other; chronic under-investment; and a reduction in nurse training places. That is why we have a 10-year programme of modernisation to put that situation behind us and to improve services to patients.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, while I do not wish to follow the Minister down the path that he has just set, will he recognise that there are waiting lists and waiting lists? It is rather confusing for the public, because there are waiting lists for appointments in hospitals, waiting lists to see a consultant and waiting lists to have an operation. When the Minister talks about waiting lists, will he please avoid the trap of lumping them all together? They really are quite different.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to point out the multi-faceted nature of the issues that we are determined to tackle. With

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regard to outpatient waiting times, the noble Baroness will probably know that we expect one third of a million more people to be treated as outpatients this year. We shall show the same determination that we have shown in relation to inpatients to tackle waiting lists for outpatients. Overall, it is right that we should focus on waiting lists as an important factor in modernising the service.

Lord Peston: My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the alleged obsession with waiting lists was not invented by the present Government, but by our predecessors? They were constantly discussing waiting lists when we were in opposition. Am I right in understanding my noble friend when he refers to waiting lists as only one of the things at which the Government are aiming? If I recall correctly--perhaps my noble friend will assure your Lordships on the point--the Government, in their White Paper, referred much more significantly to reducing death rates from coronary heart disease, strokes, cancer and other such illnesses. Surely that is the sort of topic on which we should be concentrating and the sort of topic also on which one would rather like the Opposition to offer some support.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to point to the priorities we have set in relation to cancer, coronary heart disease and, indeed, mental health. As for the previous government's record on waiting lists, we should recall that they set a target specifying that no one should have to wait more than 18 months. They did not deliver. We, however, have done so.

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