Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]
As chair of the parliamentary Labour party, I am very proud to be introducing this debate today, because it was the Labour party that brought the national health service into existence, and that has subsequently built and fought for the NHS. I represent Manchester, Central in the city in which I was born, and 60 years ago Aneurin Bevan in effect opened the national health service at what was then called Park hospital a few miles from the centre of the city. Today, my city has one of the biggest hospital building programmes anywhere in the country, thanks to the current Labour Government.
Sixty years on, it is difficult for many of us to understand and make sense of what life was like for the poor who were sick before the NHS came into being in 1948. In those years, friends of mine saw their children die because they could not afford the health care that is taken for granted today. People lived their lives embittered because they lost children in the time before there was an NHS, when people relied on private medicine. The ramifications were dreadful, and great distress was caused to millions of people because there was no NHS.
The NHS has been one of the country’s defining and civilising achievements, and people across the political spectrum now claim to be proud of it. It is an achievement built on the dedication of millions of people. I want to pay tribute to the nurses, doctors and other medical staff for the contribution they have made over those 60 years; they are there in people’s hour of need. I also want to pay tribute, however, to people such as those in the ambulance service and the porters, the builders and even the bureaucrats, whom it is so easy to deride, but without whom the health service would not work.
I do not want to be too partisan in these days when even the Tory party says it loves the NHS. However, it might be worth pointing out that I understand that some hours ago the Tory party demanded access to some of the “NHS at 60” badges, which I am proud to be wearing. In earlier debates, I saw very few Conservative Members wearing those badges. [Interruption.] Some of my hon. Friends are telling and showing me that they are wearing their badges, but not so the Tories. It is a shame, though, that the Tories did not display the same dedication to the NHS in 1946 when the Bill to create it was being taken through the House. My namesake—but no relation, I think—Major Lloyd said that taking over the hospitals was like Henry VIII taking over the monasteries, but most of our constituents are delighted that our hospitals are now part of the NHS and safe in Labour’s hands.
I wish the Tories had been so careful with the NHS. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) laughs. Perhaps that is because he was part of a Government who ran down the NHS. When the Tories were in power there was real talk about dismantling the NHS and about different ways of providing a national health service, such as insurance funding. There was talk about the break-up of the NHS.
I offered a laugh of amusement because I fought a number of elections in which Labour produced leaflets talking about the privatisation of the health service. The hon. Gentleman talks about 60 years on and the health service being safe under Labour, but how does he feel about this Government doing so much to bring the private sector into the health service, which I am sure he would have vigorously opposed no more than five years ago?
I will respond to that in a few moments, but let us first talk a little about the Conservative record. When Clement Attlee suggested that the opening of the NHS should be celebrated as a national institution and supported by the whole nation, Nye Bevan, the founder of the national health service, said:
“The Conservatives voted against the National Health Act, not only on the second but on the Third Reading. I do not see why we should forget this.”
The Conservative Government of the 1980s tried systematically to underfund and dismantle our NHS. Even then they could not break it completely, but they left it in a parlous state, which Conservative Members—including those few who are present—should be ashamed of.
It is also difficult to forget that the coalition against the building of the NHS and one of the greatest reforming Acts that this House has ever brought into being is just as real and alive today: the British Medical Association and the Conservative party, which joined forces then to scare and mislead, and which join forces today to scare and mislead on proposals to bring better services for patients throughout the country.
In this morning’s edition of The Times, the Leader of the Opposition is quoted as saying that
“Google can tell us more about our illness than our doctors”.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give me an absolute guarantee that, although the citizens of Witney may want Google for their medical care, Manchester, Central will have real doctors, real nurses and real spending in our NHS, and not gimmicks. I do wonder whether the Opposition are serious, even today, about the NHS. We know that, in the end, the NHS is safest in the hands of the Labour party. Labour is proud of the NHS and has shown unflinching support for the values that the NHS is there to provide. Ours is the party that voted for it, built it, saved it, invested in it and rebuilt it when it was brought to such a low state under the last Tory Government, and we are now determined to deliver the quality of service that will help it flourish into the next century.
We have done an enormous number of things already since 1997 of which we are very proud. Let us look at the real facts about real people. Today, there are 50,000 people alive in this country who would have died from cancer; they have been saved by the improvements of this Labour Government. Some 150,000 people who would have died of heart disease have survived. There are 80,000 extra nurses in our health service and 38,000 extra doctors. These mind-boggling numbers show the scale of the investment that we have put into the health service. For example, in 1997 just two thirds of people with suspected cancer were seen within two weeks of being referred; that number has now risen to 99.6 per cent. The difference in terms of people’s lives is that they have peace of mind; and of course, early detection of cancer means increased survival rates. Many people survive precisely because of the investment that we have put in. Some 35,000 heart operations were carried out in 1997; in 2007, approximately 74,000 were carried out—almost twice as many. Again, that is a lot of lives saved.
The House knows that over the years, the NHS has been able to compare itself happily and proudly with other systems around the world. I think it fair to say that the NHS model really does work—we can compare our system with health systems around the world, and in particular the American model. Let us be honest: the American model certainly does produce enormous excellence, but it is enormous excellence for the very few, and enormous poverty of health care for the many who cannot afford health insurance, or whose health insurance falls through the system. Such a role for private insurance can never offer the people of this country what we demand from our health care. We know from other systems in different parts of Europe that there are standards that we would like in different areas, but there is no other system as universal and comprehensive as ours.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has shown her commitment to the NHS over a lifetime. Not so long ago, she was a working nurse in our national health service. She has given of her own life to the NHS and is proud to have done so. The very pride that she has in our national health service is the pride that every Labour Member of Parliament has. We know that in the end, the NHS still is the jewel in Labour’s crown. It is the jewel in the nation’s crown, because it is the one institution that, without peradventure, the public of this country love and cherish. It is the one institution that the public would not let go of, even when it was under attack in previous days from underfunding and there was a Government who would have dismantled it, had they felt that they could have got away with it politically. That is why I am here to say on behalf of every Labour Member of Parliament that we are still proud of our NHS, proud of our Health Ministers and proud in particular of what we will build for the future. We are proud of the contribution that the Labour party has made to this enduring jewel in British society.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this debate, which is so timely in the week when our national health service celebrates its diamond birthday. I am delighted to have the opportunity to celebrate it, a couple of days before the 60th anniversary of that famous day, 5 July 1948.
Yesterday, many Members and, more importantly, members of staff of the NHS past and present, and many of its patients, attended a most magnificent service at Westminster abbey. I am sure that the whole House would want me to thank the staff of the abbey for allowing us to hold the 60th anniversary service there. Many people were moved by the tributes that were paid in short contributions by Ashley Brooks, Ed Mayne, Louise Baxter and Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth told us that when she was 21, she was appointed by Aneurin Bevan to be the first woman ever to sit on a hospital board, that of the Royal London hospital. She was with us yesterday and showed, in the contribution that she made before those from the Prime Minister and David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS, that she is very much a diamond to us.
My hon. Friend was kind to mention that I have spent some time in the NHS—more than 30 years, actually—so the anniversary has a special meaning for me. I started in administration as a clerk and then continued into nursing. In community nursing in particular, I saw the gross inequalities that existed in health, and I witnessed the waiting times throughout the ’80s and ’90s when I was a clinical nurse practitioner. I knew that the patients whom I visited would have a long wait for their pain to be relieved, particularly if it was hip pain that required a replacement operation, or cataracts, which restricted their ability to care for themselves.
I loved working in the NHS and am proud to say that I did so—just as proud as I am of its recent achievements. They include making significant inroads into driving down health care-associated infections and cutting waiting times from referral to treatment to a maximum of 18 weeks. The whole staff of the NHS need to be congratulated on that; not just the surgeons but the clerical assistants who administer the difficult record-keeping to ensure that patients are called at an appropriate time. Of course, we expect patients to meet those times and booking arrangements whenever possible.
It is not only myself and Members of all parties who are proud of the health service. According to a BBC poll published on Monday, we are not alone. Some 82 per cent. of respondents said that they, too, were proud of it, and half thought that it was the envy of the world.
It is hard to imagine what life was like before the NHS. The lowest-paid working men contributed a compulsory 4d a week to a system that provided them with the service of a panel doctor but not hospital care. Higher-paid workers and all women and children had to pay each time they saw a GP, usually laying the money on the desk as they walked in the door. Many older people, including my parents, tell me of the fear of a two-bob cough turning into a three-bob cough, and what a difference that shilling would make to the family budget if the cough worsened.
I vividly remember the days before the war, when the cost of having a call from a doctor was 2s/6d. The total family income was a widow’s pension of 8s/6d, which makes us understand the terrible choices that parents had to make. They had to pay three quarters of their weekly income to get the doctor to call for their two children. That was at a time when childhood diseases were killing children on a large scale. The NHS has lifted the burden of anxiety from a generation and allowed ordinary people greater peace of mind for 60 years.
I cannot resist mentioning a story about my first late husband, Bob Cryer, who was also a Member of Parliament for Keighley. When he was six in 1941, he almost died of diphtheria. The doctor’s bills were so big that his mother, who was a skilled dressmaker, had to make dresses and suits for the doctor’s wife to pay off the bills. That was the only way the family could pay them.
My father was a GP in Bury and served the national health service for nearly 50 years. He told me that when he first arrived in Bury the practice was still collecting debts from people who had had to pay before the NHS was introduced. That that shameful practice does not go on today is a huge credit to the NHS and all who work in it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his worthy remarks about his father’s contribution to the health service. As a community nurse, I used to visit older people and they would still be concerned to offer me something in return for my visit. I was often offered some eggs and had to say that it was not necessary, but that generation still could not quite believe that they had the NHS, provided according to need and not ability to pay.
When it was created, the NHS was unique. It was the first time anywhere in the world that health care was provided completely free at the point of delivery, on the basis of citizenship rather than the payment of fees or insurance. It was also the first time that prevention, diagnosis and treatment were brought together under one umbrella organisation. The NHS is as unique today as it was 60 years ago. It has one of the world’s largest work forces, and provides one of the world’s most comprehensive national health services.
This week, “Our NHS, Our Future” set the future direction of the NHS for the next 10 years and beyond, with great emphasis on quality. It will see patients becoming more active, empowered and involved in their own care; more care closer to home in the community; a more personalised treatment system, rather than medicine for the masses; and prevention care climbing higher up the agenda. It will help to ensure that the NHS remains at the forefront of care, research and treatment, and continues to be the envy of the world.
If my hon. Friend has 30 years’ service in the NHS, as she said earlier, she must have joined it straight from school.
Despite the cynical voices of the Opposition about private investment in the NHS, the fundamental principle remains the same: it is free at the point of need.
My hon. Friend’s compliment is accepted. The principle to which he refers has always been, and always will be, the case for Labour Members.
Medicine and health care have to change, because they are dynamic. If we never changed, we would not be delivering health care as it should be delivered. People’s needs change and so does the science, so delivery should also change. In 1948, cataract operations meant a week of total immobility with the patient’s head supported by sandbags. Eye surgery is now over within 20 minutes, and most patients go home the same day. In 1958, hip replacements were still so unusual that the surgeon who invented them asked patients to agree to return them post mortem. The NHS now carries out more than 1,000 of those replacements every week. I remember my first time as a student nurse in theatre assisting with what was called the Charnley operation and seeing a hip removed. Seeing that patient free of pain was nothing short of a miracle.
Last year, staff at Harefield hospital grew a human heart valve from stem cells and this year, staff at Moorfields have already tested a revolutionary gene therapy for treatment of a type of inherited blindness, and patient choice has been extended on that to all NHS-approved hospital providers.
People are now living on average at least 10 years longer than in the past. Deaths from cancer and heart disease have fallen dramatically and Britain is one of the safest places in the world to give birth. As a former nurse, I know that dramatic improvements in the health service have not been easy to achieve, but I remember when money-collection buckets for equipment and for accident and emergency equipment were the norm. The friends of the hospital did not just provide some of the friendlier aspects of health care, such as art, music and the like; money was collected for big equipment, like scanners, and they were owned by the friends of the hospital and other charities, which performed much of the fundraising. That is no longer the case. We have first-class equipment in first-class buildings and we must always consider how we have to change and use the skills of the work force, in particular.
I want to pay tribute to the work force. Working for the health service is a huge commitment, and it is usually a huge commitment for the member of staff’s family, too. The staff and volunteers, past and present, continually help to drive up standards and the quality of care for millions. I hope that the media recognises that this week. Yes, we sometimes get it wrong. The system can be inefficient and over-bureaucratic, but most of the time it is marvellous. The diamond is about the only stone that hardly has a flaw in it, but occasionally that will happen. The majority of the time, however, we have to stand up and be proud of the NHS.
We must be proud of the NHS’s values—universal, tax-funded and free at the point of need. They remain as fundamental to the NHS today as they were when it was launched back in 1948. Yesterday, we celebrated at Westminster Abbey. We went across the road to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, where the amazing, wonderful world-class soprano, Lesley Garrett, sang “The impossible dream” to all those who attended the service. I do not intend to burst into song at this point—I know that I am disappointing Members by not doing so. She said, as Nye Bevan would have wanted, that to dream the impossible dream was what he and that Labour Government did. They fought the unbeatable foe and they won.
Aneurin Bevan said that a national health service would
“lift the shadow from millions of homes. It will keep very many people alive who might otherwise be dead. It will relieve suffering…It will be a great contribution towards the wellbeing of the common people of Great Britain.”—[Official Report, 30 April 1946; Vol. 422, c. 63.]
He also said:
“No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means”.
I hope that we all continue in that spirit. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central surrounds Trafford, where the first NHS hospital was established. The north-west region is right to be proud of what it does today. We dreamed the impossible dream. We fought the foe at different stages of that journey. We still have a few fights to go, but we will be as brave as the song says and as Aneurin Bevan wanted us to be. I am grateful for the opportunity for this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Six o’clock.