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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that the Prime Minister's final answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition lasted precisely one minute and 50 seconds. Given your periodic appeals for brevity on the part of right hon. and hon. Members and the fact that you are empowered to impose--[Interruption.]
Mr. Bercow: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Given your periodic appeals for brevity and the fact that you are empowered to impose 10, 12 or 15-minute limits on Back-Bench contributions to debates, would you consider the imposition of a one-minute limit on the Prime Minister's answers to questions, so that he does not waffle irrelevantly, to the disadvantage of the House and the country?
Mr. Speaker: I am concerned at every Question Time that Back Benchers should get an opportunity to contribute. Today, I was disappointed at the slowness of progress. I hope that my disappointment will be taken on board by the Ministers concerned and by those on the Opposition Front Bench.
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Prime Minister's Question Time is an opportunity for hon. Members to raise serious issues, in particular constituency issues. Yet again today, more than half the time available has been occupied by the Leader of the Opposition, with specious questions and so-called jokes halfway through. The right hon. Gentleman finished at 3.17 pm and only six hon. Members were called from the Order Paper. Surely there is a case for asking the Leader of the Opposition to ask questions and not make semi-speeches.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not part of the problem the fact that when the Prime Minister is supposed to be answering questions about his policy he launches into long rants about Opposition policy, for which he has no responsibility? Could you not exercise your discretion to prevent that from happening with the frequency that it so regrettably does?
When the Government came to office, our first job was to stabilise the national health service. Decades of neglect, coupled with years of failed reforms, had left the NHS with neither the investment nor the fundamental changes that it needed. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) thinks that that is so funny, perhaps he will explain why, when this Government came to office, the health authority in his area of Worcestershire had built up debts of £12 billion under the previous Conservative Government. Would he like to stand up and explain why that was? The truth is that the internal market imposed on the health service by Conservative Ministers had failed patients and disempowered staff. It created a lottery in care and failed to raise standards.
In our first two years, the Government laid the foundation for fundamental reform in the national health service. The internal market--tough on finance but soft on quality--has now gone. In its place there is a new emphasis on raising standards. Doctors and nurses know patients' needs best, and they are now in the driving seat to shape local health services, controlling about £20 billion of NHS spending every year.
Secondly, after decades of under-investment, we have supplied the new resources that the NHS needs. For years, the NHS budget rose by just 3 per cent. a year. In the previous Parliament, it grew by even less. In the final year of the Conservative Government, NHS spending actually fell in real terms. Cuts for the short term did lasting damage for the long term. There were cuts in the numbers of nurse training places, of beds and of GP trainees, and there were cuts in spending on buildings and on equipment.
Mr. Bottomley: While the Secretary of State is talking about such matters, will he say at what stage he or his junior Ministers decided to abolish community health councils, and why they did not consult on that decision?
We consulted the British people and NHS staff, and we received a quarter of a million responses. We assessed what action, in terms of policy and investment, needed to be taken to turn the service around. That required both new resources and new reforms.
Mr. Milburn: There were many different views as to the best way to ensure that the voice of patients could be enhanced within the national health service. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to demonstrate the range of the responses received from various organisations with regard to CHCs, I should be happy to oblige.
For example, Marianne Rigge is the director of the College of Health, of which the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) might know. It is responsible for providing patients with information about waiting times, for example, and is an extremely reputable organisation. She said:
Mr. Peter Bottomley: I apologise for causing you to rise, Mr. Speaker. However, I was not trying to shout the Secretary of State down, but to encourage him to answer the specific question that he allowed me to ask. I asked when he decided to abolish community health councils, and what consultation was held on that. He was not answering that question.
Step by step, the Government are putting right what the Conservatives did wrong. In just five years, the NHS will grow by a third in real terms--that is the biggest growth that it has ever experienced. Capital budgets that fell by an average of more than 2 per cent. a year in the last Parliament are growing by an average of 8 per cent. a year in the current Parliament.
Of course it takes time for resources to produce results, but after decades of neglect the NHS is moving in the right direction. Waiting lists that rose by 400,000 under the last Government have fallen by more than 130,000 under this Government. Hospital bed numbers that were cut by 40,000 under the Conservatives are now rising again with Labour.