§ 5. Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
How many patients were treated by the NHS in each of the last five years; and what was the average waiting time for hospital treatment. 
§ The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)
Approximately 8 million, 8.6 million, 9 million, 9.3 million followed by a record 9.5 million finished consultant episodes in 1997–98. The average waiting time for admission was 45 days in 1995–96, the latest year for which figures are currently available.
§ Mr. Bruce
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those figures, which demonstrate the success, over 50 years of the NHS, of constantly treating more patients. I am sure that he would wish to congratulate the NHS on that—and to congratulate the Conservative party on having been in charge of the NHS for 35 of those years. However, I wonder whether he would agree that, as we try to increase the number of people going through the NHS and to shorten waiting lists, one of the most important objectives should be to reduce waiting times. Can he pledge to the House that when—if—he ever shortens waiting lists, he will also have started to reduce waiting times?
§ Mr. Milburn
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have already started to reduce waiting times. For the first time since records began, there are no people waiting 18 months or more for treatment. We shall continue to make progress on that. The hon. Gentleman and his party should grasp the point that, as we reduce waiting lists, we shall reduce waiting times. With regard to his party's custody of the national health service, I remind the hon. Gentleman that his party opposed the creation of the NHS.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Is it not important to have a national health service? Arising from 137 what my hon. Friend has just said, and in view of the 50th anniversary of the NHS this Sunday, would it not be appropriate for the Tory Opposition, especially Front-Bench Members, to apologise to the country for the fact that their party did all that it could, in Parliament and outside, to stop the national health service coming into being? Would it not be a sign of humility if the new health spokesperson for the Conservative Opposition made that apology today?
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
Now that it appears from press briefings that Ministers have accepted that, if more patients are to be treated more quickly and better, significantly more money is needed for the health service—there is apparently to be an announcement about that—and that a proper inspectorate is needed to ensure decent quality—there is apparently to be an announcement about that, too—will there also be an announcement that we are to have a more democratic health service at the end of the Government's period in office? Will we have representatives accountable to the public taking regional strategic decisions, and patients and ordinary people taking local health decisions? Are we to have a professionals-run health service, or a people's health service?
§ Mr. Milburn
We shall not have direct elections to NHS boards, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is asking, but I give him this assurance. We have had the national health service for 50 years, and its achievements have been immense. I am sure that everyone in the House would want to pay tribute to all the work that all the staff have done for all that time. However, the NHS has never done a very simple thing: we have never asked patients what they want from the national health service, and what they think about the local services that the NHS delivers. We shall do that for the first time this year. There will be the first annual national survey of patients. It will happen later this year, next year and every year thereafter. It will enable us to give patients a hand in decision-making in the NHS.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
Is it not the case that the national health service is owed a colossal sum of money, some of it by those indulging in private practice? If that money had been collected in 1996 alone, is it not true that we should not have been left with the mess of long waiting lists?
§ Mr. Milburn
As my hon. Friend knows, last year this Government directed the NHS to do what it should always have done: to make first use of NHS capacity, before considering referring to the private sector.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I join in the praise of the national health service but, with reference to waiting time, will the Minister give us an assurance that the time taken by the general practitioner to get in touch with the consultant will be taken into account? There is a tendency to ignore that, and some patients are waiting far too long to see a consultant.
§ Mr. Milburn
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Patients are sick of waiting for GP appointments and 138 out-patients appointments. They are sick of waiting to get into hospital, and some even have to wait to get out of hospital. That is why the Government are pledged to get waiting lists down. As we get waiting lists down, we shall get waiting times down as well.
§ Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)
Is my hon. Friend aware of the enormous success of the James Paget hospital, which serves my constituency, which has reduced waiting lists by 375 patients in the months from January to May this year? Following the increase in resources that the hospital has received from the Government, it expects to have reduced waiting lists by March 1999 to 225 below the figure for March 1997. Is that not proof that, in my constituency, the pledge is being honoured?
§ Mr. Milburn
I thank my hon. Friend, and I should be grateful if he would pass on Ministers' thanks for the enormous efforts that are being made in his local hospital. We want to see that achievement replicated everywhere. We are confident that that will occur and that, by March next year, waiting lists will be lower than the record level that we inherited in May last year.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
Does the Minister accept that, when the NHS was established 50 years ago, it drew heavily on the egalitarian principles that were the background to the service in Wales? Those principles enshrined the idea that people should have access to health care in line with their needs and not their ability to pay. Given that those are the principles of the national health service, will the Minister assure the House today that it is Government policy that every person who needs a life-saving, life-enhancing or pain-reducing treatment will get it as quickly on the NHS as by going privately? If that cannot happen now, when will it be achieved?
§ Mr. Milburn
That is precisely what we want to see for the national health service. The Government were elected on a manifesto pledge that the national health service will be there for patients when they need it. Need and not people's ability to pay or who their general practitioner is should be the factor that determines how health care will be made available to individual patients.
§ Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)
When Opposition Members talk about their custody of the national health service, does my hon. Friend agree that it is worth reminding them that, when they left office, waiting lists were at a record high and rising? Will my hon. Friend expand on his previous comments about the need for a comprehensive health service? An insidious element of the previous Government was that treatment depended on who one's general practitioner was rather than clinical need. Does my hon. Friend agree that clinical need should be the sole criterion for NHS treatment?
§ Mr. Milburn
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Conservatives' record on waiting lists and waiting times is far from happy. During their 18-year tenure of office, 400,000 people were added to the waiting list. The previous Government never managed to achieve what we shall achieve in office: getting waiting lists down not just this year but next year and in subsequent years. We shall achieve that goal and, when we do, I hope that Opposition Members will praise us.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)
I am sure that we shall. Do not the elderly—not just in Worthing but 139 throughout the country—wait the longest for treatment? Emergency services are usually utilised by young people while the elderly need cataract, hip and heart treatments and the like. Does the Minister agree that resources matter in large part? When does he expect that his Government will see a real increase in resources each year that matches the average for the 18 years in which the Conservatives cared for the health service?