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The point I should make to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues is that these targets are about outcomes. They are not arbitrary political targets. Targets only become arbitrary political targets for the Tories when we set them; that is not what they are when the Tories set them. I do not think that the irony of that will be wasted on the wider population.
The hon. Gentleman helpfully confirmed that under the Liberal Democrats there would be no national targets for the NHS, but there would be strategic national goals. I am sure that at some point he will want to explain to us what those will be.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) and for Telford (David Wright) on their very effective speeches. Not everything is perfect in the national health service, and we do not claim that it is, but not everything is as hopeless and desperate as Opposition Members proclaim it to be for their own party-political reasons. That balance has been signally lacking from all the contributions we have heard from Conservatives today.
The debate has served at least one useful purpose in highlighting the difference between Labour Members who want the NHS to expand and who believe in the principle that care should be free at the point of use, and Opposition Members who do not want and believe those things. We want to put extra investment into the NHS; they want to cut that investment. They want to take money directly from the NHS, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, to subsidise the cost of private medical insurance. That is the policy of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, although he now seems to be denying it.
We say that NHS patients should come first. We want choice for every NHS patient, so that we can continue to cut waiting times and make the most effective use of our hospitals and new treatment centres. The Conservative party wants to introduce top-up vouchers for those who can afford to have private operations and treatment.
The policies that the Opposition want us to pursue are not new policies; they are just more extreme versions of failed Tory policies of the pasteven more Thatcherite, even more unfair and even more damaging.
Tim Loughton: Can the Minister tell us why he thinks that last year 300,000 people, most of them not wealthy, using their own life savingsthree times as many people as when his party came to poweropted out of the NHS to seek private operations, having already paid tax? Does he not think that those people are now owed more respect, care and helpand why did they have to do that in the first place?
Mr. Hutton: They did it to avoid long waiting times. I think that everyone understands that. The hon. Gentleman must surely understand it. The answer, however, is not to take money out of the NHS, but to increase investment in the NHS. I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to be able to grasp that basic fact.
None of these Tory policies is based on reason and fairness. They are based on prejudice, and on pure political opportunism. They will not benefit the many; they will benefit the few. They are riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. It is impossible to say, as the Conservatives have tried to say again tonight, that spending decisions in respect of the NHS will be made by an independent non-political body, and to announce in the same breath that £2 billion will be taken from NHS budgets to fund their policies on vouchers and private medical insurance. What a load of nonsense!
The NHS needs investment and reform if it is to meet the health care needs of our modern society. We have set a course for both. The record investment will see spending on the NHS grow in real terms by nearly 50 per cent. by 2008, building over 100 new hospitals and employing 55,000 more nurses than in 1997, and that is due to rise further still to 70,000 by 2008, employing more doctors20,000 more consultants and GPs by 2008and replacing cancer screening equipment at an unprecedented rate. Forty-two per cent. of MRI scanners, 63 per cent. of CT scanners and half of all linear accelerators are brand newall purchased in the past three years.
The NHS is now doing 1 million more operations and elective admissions a year than when the Tories were last in power. Nearly 2 million more out-patients were seen last year compared with 1997. That is why out-patient and in-patient waiting lists are fallingand fast. Waiting times to see a consultant or a GP, the public's No. 1 priority, are coming down, too. All that is made possible by the extra investment and reforms we are making. All that is at risk from the cuts and policies proposed by the Conservative party.
For each of those statistics, and here I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, a real difference has been made to the lives of many of our fellow citizens and their families. They are not just figures. Deaths from coronary heart disease are falling. If one listened to the hon. Member for Woodspring, one would have thought that cancer survival rates were fallingthey are rising rapidly. That has all come about because the NHS has been focused on shortening the length of time that patients have to wait before their treatment begins, on making the new drugs available more quickly and on improving cancer screening.
In truth, that is only half the story. The investment on its own is not enough if the NHS is to become the service that Labour Members wish it to be. There is, of course, still a lot to do but clear national targets and objectives have ensured that the reforms are focused on patients' priorities: reducing waiting, improving services in cancer, coronary heart disease, mental health and services for older people. Those are not arbitrary targets but real progress in crucial areas where the NHS needed to improve the service that it offered patients.
That is the course that the House should stick to. The alternatives on offer would take us precisely in the wrong direction, with no guaranteed minimum waiting times for treatment in hospital, in accident and emergency or in a GP's surgery, no commitment to recruit more doctors and more nurses, no promise even to maintain levels of spending, no national standards, unfairness built into the system at every level, with the inevitable return to the lottery of care that we saw under previous Tory Administrations.
The only sure thing is that things would get worse in the NHS if the Conservative party ever returned to office. If we took the advice of Opposition Members this evening, there would be no benchmarks against which taxpayers or patients could judge progress and that, of course, is how the Conservatives want it because they want to talk down the NHS and so pave the way for their pay-as-you-go health care market.
There is a choice before us tonight, as there will be for the British people at the next election. I am looking forward to that contest, too. We will propose the extra investment and the reforms that will help the NHS to provide faster, better-quality treatment with real choice for patients in the best possible environment. The Tory alternative is a smaller NHS, with cuts in investment and tax subsidies for those who can afford private treatment. For the Conservatives, there is no sense of direction other than backwards, no purposewe have seen it clearly tonightother than to undermine the NHS and the values that it stands for. The choice that they face this week is either to continue with a failing leader, or to bring back the failed leaders of the past. I think that I speak for all my right hon. and hon. Friends when I say roll on that next election.