Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), and perhaps we should also put on the record the interest shown by Labour Members. Attending the debate are my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), for Edmonton (Mr Love), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Leyton and Wanstead, for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), and for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). I shall give an honorary mention to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), too. I believe they would all speak with one voice: the national health service is popular. It is not perfect, but it is doing a good job. Leave it alone and do the right thing.
In 1997, only 35% of people were very satisfied with the national health service. According to the survey of British social attitudes, that figure rose to 60% under the Labour Government. The NHS became a non-political issue. The Ipsos MORI poll consistently showed that seven out of 10 people described the NHS as a key issue, but by 2009 only one in 10 people felt the NHS to be one of the most important issues for them. As a result, the Conservatives changed their strategy and tried to make the NHS a non-political issue. They tried to adopt it; I remember they did the same with green policies. I was working in the Department of Energy and Climate Change at the time, and for every new idea we thought of, the Conservatives would say, “That is a very good idea; we thought of it first.” They did practically the same thing with the health service.
The Prime Minister led the charge and spoke about the support that his family had received from front-line NHS staff. People wanted to believe him and felt sympathy for him. They understood what he was saying and wanted to believe his promise to protect the NHS. In fact, analysis has shown that attitudes to the Prime Minister changed fundamentally.
The former Bullingdon boy and shadowy ex-adviser to Lord Lamont was transformed by his seeming commitment to the national health service. People wanted to believe that he wanted to protect public services. When the Prime Minister summed up his priorities as N-H-S, people wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Before the last election, the Conservatives made two promises about the NHS. First, they promised to increase spending year on year. Secondly, in November 2009, the Prime Minister told the Royal College of Pathologists:
“With the Conservatives there will be no more of the tiresome, meddlesome, top-down re-structures that have dominated the last decade of the NHS.”
They have broken both those promises. Although we have heard them claim that the Secretary of State for Health talked about his proposals on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Wimbledon, the people do not believe it; they were not there to hear it, they do not believe that they voted for it, and they certainly did not vote for it when they voted for the Liberal Democrats, because they believed that they were voting for elected primary care trusts when they voted Lib Dem.
The Conservatives are taking a huge risk by undermining the NHS. Nigel Lawson has said that the NHS is
“the closest thing the English have to a religion”.
People meddle with it at their peril. Going into battle with it, as the Government have done, will be toxic for them.
The Conservatives are at long last realising that they have made a profound mistake, but it is too late, because people know that introducing competition into the heart of the national health service is completely at odds with the NHS ethos of equality and co-operation. That the Conservatives are doing all this without a mandate from the people makes it even worse. Their reforms are causing profound unease among health workers and the public.
The Conservatives are so desperate to cover up and to counter opposition that they have been trying to manipulate public opinion with false statistics. To hear the Prime Minister claim that we are behind the rest of Europe on heart disease and cancer was appalling. He was corrected by Professor John Appleby, who has already been quoted. It is simply inaccurate not to put into the mix the fact that the UK had the biggest fall in heart-attack deaths between 1980 and 2006 of any European country. At that rate, we will have one of the lowest death rates for heart disease. It is a similar story for lung cancer and breast cancer-two of the other main killers. That is, of course, so long as standards continue to improve and the NHS is not distracted by things such as a major reorganisation of the entire NHS.
Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting on the record some of the real health outcomes in this country. The hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) summed it up when he said that even if those health outcomes were not improving, there is no causal link between that area and the reforms that the Government propose; does my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) agree?
Emily Thornberry: That is right. It is a little like saying, “There are some difficulties with the national health service, so let’s change it,” without looking to see whether those changes will actually attack the problems. None of us says that the national health service is perfect. More things need to be done, but instead of building on our achievements, the Government are undermining the national health service by taking it by the ankles, turning it upside down and shaking it hard. People do not support them in doing that. Some people even heard the Prime Minister say on the “Today” programme that the national health service was second-rate. However, the penny has finally dropped for the Conservatives and they realise that they are not bringing public opinion with them when they seek to undermine the national health service in this way, so instead they have tried to suppress the information that proves that there is huge public support for our NHS as it is now, fundamentally. That is the story of what has been happening in the last few days.
To begin with, we have the unedifying spectacle of the Secretary of State saying that he will not give out certain information about what the public feel about the national health service. Then he discovers that in fact it has been given out. It is wrong of the Conservatives to suppress information about what the public think about the national health service-information that the public have paid for. It shows what their views are, and gives us a baseline before this forthcoming major trauma for the NHS. Then the Secretary of State says, “Actually, I’ve made a mistake. I gave out the information in any event.” That is the other big concern about the present Government. Not only are their reforms fundamentally driven by their ideology, but they are incompetent. There is much criticism of that.
The bottom and top of it is this: the Conservative party can do whatever they want with statistics. They can spin as they wish with whatever they want. They can say black is white until they are red-or blue-in the face, but the truth will out. The truth is that the public love their NHS. Labour gave the Government the national health service on trust. They should work on what we have achieved and tackle any outstanding problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington gave me this quote because he did not have time to use it, but it needs to be said as often as possible. Bevan said:
“The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.”
The NHS does have folk willing to fight for it.