HL Deb 09 December 1969 vol 306 cc431-4

2.49 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the criticism of private insurance schemes expressed by the Secretary of State for Social Services in his Herbert Morrison Memorial Lecture represents the views and policy of Her Majesty's other Ministers.]


My Lords, in the lecture referred to, my right honourable friend dissociated himself from the argument that it would solve the financial problems of the National Health Service if there were to be a very large increase in the number of members of these schemes even at the cost of tax concessions to them. He added that these schemes could not provide an alternative to paying for the Service out of taxation—without under-mining the principle of the free Health Service. This is the view of Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, which I think was meant to be the "soft answer that turneth away wrath." Is she not aware that in the course of that lecture her right honourable friend referred to these admirable institutions as being a disturbing element within the Service, and accused those who were members of them of "queue jumping"? Would she not consider that rather an irresponsible statement, coming from a Minister who is himself responsible for health services?


My Lords, we have already had reference this afternoon to the danger of taking words out of context, and I think that if the noble Lord will read the whole lecture which my right honourable friend delivered last May, and which has only just been published in a Fabian Tract, he will see the whole case that my right honourable friend was trying to put.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness take it from me that I have read the lecture and, furthermore, that I have taken to heart what her noble friend said earlier about Standing Order No. 29? But the particular chapter in the lecture to which this refers has in fact been noticed by the Press and elsewhere by many people as an extremely unfortunate lapse on the part of a senior Minister.


My Lords, certain of the Press reports which I have seen were, I think the noble Lord will agree, somewhat exaggerated. All my right honourable friend was trying to point out in the words he used was that if the private sector were to increase to a considerable size, it could become a serious competitor for scarce resources. It is in this context that we should see the words "queue-jumping."


My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that all this argument is a question of payment into these schemes in order to jump the queue for hospital beds so that poor people are left at the end of the queue?


My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for the point of view she has put before the House, may I ask whether Her Majesty's Government are aware that although it is easy to make allegations that private patients get undue priority, there is in fact a compensatory gain in the opposite direction for hospital patients; namely, that hospital patients benefit greatly by the experience which consultants gain in private practice?


My Lords, I am sure that the last thing my right honourable friend would wish to do is to undervalue in any way the professional skills of doctors and of nurses that are available to the National Health Service. One of the difficulties is that we do not know the exact scope and size of private practice.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness say whether it is or is not the opinion of Her Majesty's Government that private patients are queue jumping


My Lords, in 1966 my right honourable friend Mr. Kenneth Robinson, then the Minister of Health, initiated a survey of the use of pay beds in hospitals. No doubt the noble Lord is aware of that. As a result of that survey, there was a reduction of some 24 per cent. in the number of pay beds made available. I have looked more recently at the figures of use and find that although the number of beds is less, the number of patients has increased by some 2,000, but not to too great an extent. Since that review we are referring to the standard waiting list those patients who have a private consultation and then need in-patient admission.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that she has not answered my question?


My Lords, I was trying to indicate to the noble Lord that the words "queue jumping" in this context have been used to mean access to hospital treatment by patients who otherwise would have to wait. Those who know the Health Service will, I think, agree that it is a magnificent service in times of emergency and that no one is denied treatment. The problem arises when patients need treatment which is not urgent and have to go on a waiting list. The term "queue jumping" is used in those situations where, by payment of fees, patients are admitted to National Health Service beds.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is generally accepted that if a person is sick and goes for benefit under the N.H.S., he often has to wait a long time before he gets a bed in hospital, whereas if he is prepared to pay the specialist's fees his admittance to hospital is considerably quickened up? Is this not evidence of queue jumping in the terms used by my right honourable friend in his lecture?


My Lords, that is the very point I was trying to make.


My Lords, could the noble Baroness make clear to me, because I really wish to follow the Government's policy in this matter, whether she thinks that the B.U.P. Association is a desirable or an undesirable association for people to join?


My Lords, I would suggest that the noble Lord puts that down as a separate question.


My Lords, would not the noble Baroness agree that probably all the members of the present Government are insured for private medical attention?


My Lords, as a member of the present Government, I can state categorically that I am not.


My Lords, does not the noble Baroness think it somewhat extraordinary that at this moment in our economic fortunes a Minister of the Crown should describe such an important source of private saving as these private insurance companies as a disturbing element?


My Lords, I would beg the noble Lord who has just put that question, if he has not already done so, to read the whole of my right honourable friend's lecture. The statement that has been under discussion was one part of a lecture on how to pay for the social services.