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General election campaign speech on health, Cardiff 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Cardiff

Ladies and gentlemen, Cardiff is beginning to feel like a second home to me.

Six weeks ago I was here for our Spring Conference. That day, we drove down by coach from North Wales, taking in the gorgeous scenery along the way.

Two weeks ago, I was here again, for the launch of our Welsh campaign. No time for scenery then. We flew in by plane from London.

Well today our campaign has stepped up another gear. This time, I’ve come faster still! A lightning dash from Montgomery - by helicopter!

So beware! I don’t know what my campaign team have planned next. But if you hear Concorde overhead in the next few weeks, you’ll know who to expect!

I want to begin tonight by talking about the sad spectacle of the Prime Minister on TV last night. Forced by his own Party to dedicate a whole party political broadcast to address, not the nation, but the rebels in his own party!

A broadcast not targeted at 56 million people. Not even at 70,000 swing voters in marginal seats. But at just over 600 Tory Party candidates.

Ted Heath ran the 1974 election on the slogan “Who Governs Britain?”. The question of this election is: “Who Runs the Tory Party?”

Watching him, I genuinely felt sorry for him. A decent man, trying desperately to lead an impossible party.

I mean, what would you do with a Party like that - or should I say, two parties like that?!

In one Tory Party, the few left who understand that Britain’s future lies in Europe.

In the other Tory Party, the kind of people whose idea of a European policy is to shout louder in English.

They are hopelessly divided. They are weakly led. Britain’s national interests can never be effectively served by a divided government and a weak leader.

And so, like a man trying to get an octopus into a sack, poor John Major has wrestled this way and that. One moment appearing to have got a leg in. Only to see three legs pop out the other side.

The result? The internal turmoil of the Tory Party has turned into the foreign policy of the British government.

How on earth can that be in Britain’s national interests?

After all the broken promises. All the divisions. All the sleaze. All the incompetence. All the weak leadership. The game is up. It is time for the Tories to go

But with all this talk of Europe, it is vital not to forget all the other reasons why the Tories must go. What people are talking to me about on the doorsteps are their jobs, their schools and their hospitals.

Tonight I want to focus on the National Health Service. And with good reason.

For where once there was co-operation, now there is competition.

Where once doctors asked: “what does the patient need?”, now they are forced to ask: “how much does it cost?”

Where once all were equal, now some are more equal than others.

That is why, according to a poll yesterday, two thirds of family doctors believe patients are worse off since the Government’s reforms.

Why two thirds of those family doctors fear a fifth Tory term will mean the end of a free NHS.

Why no-one believes the NHS is safe in the Tories’ hands.

There are whole swathes of the country where you can’t get dental treatment on the NHS.

Charges for prescriptions, eye tests, dental check-ups, are increasing as fast as management jargon.

Caring doctors and their patients are pushed to the back of the queue, because they hold the wrong sort of budget.

We now have a top-heavy, management-loaded service, unable to cope.

Too many desks, not enough beds.

Too many suits, not enough uniforms.

Too many cuts, not enough operations.

Too many calculators, too little care.

That is why no-one believes the NHS is safe in the Tories’ hands.

This is not the NHS I want to see.

The NHS should never be managed like a private sector company, with profits put before patients.

To serve the nation well, the NHS must become that rare but quite feasible animal - an efficient, publicly managed, public service.

It is right to stop the NHS being slow, cumbersome, weighed down by bureaucracy.

But it is wrong to have a two-tier service where your chance of treatment depends not on your need but on your doctor’s status.

It would be a national disgrace, and a bitter irony, if healthcare of all our public services, were to become an example of the survival of the fittest.

I am proud of the NHS. And I am proud of the historic role our party has played in building the NHS.

I am proud of the fact that, in 1911, it was David Lloyd-George, that great Liberal son of Wales, and the great reforming Liberal government to which he belonged, which introduced the National Insurance Act laying the foundations of our modern welfare state.

I am proud of the fact that, in 1942, it was the Liberal MP Sir William Beveridge who mapped out for the first time how a comprehensive National Health Service could be created.

I am, however, unsurprised that both Lloyd-George and Beveridge were opposed by the Conservatives in Parliament.

In 1911 the Conservatives said: ‘The State Insurance Bill must be killed because we cannot afford it. It will ruin the British workers.’

It just goes to show. The issues might change. But the Tory lines never do.

And don’t you wonder - just ever so slightly - how today’s timid Labour Party would react to the NHS were it to be proposed now? Imagine Beveridge proposing the NHS to Gordon Brown:

‘Is it within the Conservatives’ spending plans? How about a period of consultation? How does it play with the Focus Groups?’

In fact, Labour weren’t all that keen on the idea in the first place.

It was the Liberals who promoted Beveridge’s plans long before they were taken up by anyone else.

Labour was split. The Unions and the local government bosses were unhappy.

Nye Bevan compared the task of converting Labour’s leaders to the NHS Bill to the efforts of Sisyphus in Greek mythology, pushing a boulder up a hill, always to see it roll down again.

It’s probably how people working in the NHS feel today, trying to persuade the Labour Party to back their warm words with the hard cash to make a difference.

But to Liberals, now as then, support for a health service for all is instinctive. A natural part of our beliefs. A crucial part of achieving the historic task Lloyd-George set out 80 years ago: ‘To make Britain a country fit for heroes.’

My aim in this trip into history is not to make a political point about the other parties’ inadequacies. It would be a harsh man indeed who did not forgive political parties a U-turn or two over 80 years - the Labour party have managed enough in the last 8 days!

But it is to make clear the historic commitment of Liberal Democrats to our National Health Service.

And why is the health service so central to our beliefs? Let me tell you.

Throughout this election, the Liberal Democrats have constantly returned to the same theme. Opportunity.

Opportunity lies at the very heart of our political beliefs. The opportunity to make the most of our abilities. To fulfil our potential. To live life to the full.

That is why we put education at the top of our agenda. To open up new opportunities for each and every person in this country.

That is why we are determined to reform our rotten political system. To give each and every person in Britain the opportunity to have a say in the decisions which affect their lives.

And that is why we are so committed to the NHS. Because ill-health is one of the greatest barriers to the opportunities which each and every person in this country deserve.

So I want to take a few minutes to spell out, plainly and simply, the Liberal Democrats’ proposals to protect and improve our National Health Service. Clear proposals. Costed commitments.

Our health policy has six main objectives.

First, to promote good health. By tackling conditions which cause illness in the first place. Poverty. Unemployment. Poor housing. Pollution.

In the past 10 years, prescriptions for asthma have increased by 80%. Yet still nothing is done to clean up our air and tackle pollution.

Every winter more than 200 elderly people die from hypothermia as a direct result of cold and damp homes. Yet nothing is done to insulate pensioners’ homes more effectively, in the way Liberal Democrats propose through our national Home Insulation Programme.

A few simple measures could save the NHS millions of pounds and spare millions of people pain and suffering. That’s what makes Liberal Democrat policies to tackle pollution, to improve housing and to get people back to work even more important.

Our second objective is to prevent ill health.

Consider these two facts.

In 1989, the Conservatives scrapped free eye and dental check ups.

Over the last four years, there has been a 57% rise in cataract treatment and a 44% rise in glaucoma treatment.

Yet the earlier these problems are detected, the easier and cheaper they are to treat. So why on earth have we scrapped free check-ups?

The term ‘short sighted’ might almost have been invented to describe this folly.

Labour say they will do nothing about this. The Liberal Democrats say we will.

As the first step towards a Health Service that puts as much emphasis on preventing illness as on treating it, we will restore free eye and dental check-ups for everyone in Britain as an immediate priority.

Our third objective? To shift resources from bureaucracy into patient care.

I sometimes think that if Florence Nightingale had been starting out today, she wouldn’t be the Lady with the Lamp, she’d be the Lady with the Calculator.

Over the last 7 years, we have seen the number of administrators and managers in the NHS increase by 20,000, while the number of nurses has fallen by 50,000.

Now, of course we need a well-managed Health Service. But when was the last time you heard someone say “Is there an accountant in the House” ... “Let me through, I’m a management consultant”?!

Let me give you an example. At the moment NHS contracts are renegotiated annually. A pen-pushing exercise a bit like painting the Forth bridge - you start again as soon as you have finished.

Put NHS contracts on a longer, three-year basis, and we would both save money and provide better planning.

But don't let anyone kid you that savings from bureaucracy alone - vital as they are - will solve the financial crisis in the Health Service. Labour claim their plans can be funded entirely from savings in bureaucracy. That is nonsense.

There is still a massive hole in the middle of Labour’s spending plans. Patients will get nothing from their Polo Economics and Polo Promises.

Our fourth objective is better planning.

Twice a week now, we have a National Lottery draw. But if your family relies on the NHS, every day is a lottery.

Wards are being closed. Services are being axed. Operations are being cancelled. Not in any planned way. But as a result of hundreds of local financial crises.

For all the extra managers created by Tory bureaucracy, there is no strategic planning whatsoever in the NHS these days.

Liberal Democrats will halt the bed closures and service cuts. Now. For six months. And we will carry out a full independent audit of NHS facilities, matching beds and services with patient needs, right across the country.

Our fifth objective? More doctors and nurses, for better patient care.

Morale among workers in the NHS is now at an all-time low.

Under-valued. Over-worked. Staff are leaving the Health Service in droves.

Liberal Democrats will reverse this trend.

We will put a new emphasis on retaining staff, and recruit new staff to ease the pressure on hospital wards.

We will provide enough money for an extra 10,000 nurses or 5,000 new doctors.

And our final objective? Shorter waiting lists and national standards people can rely on.

An essential priority is to enshrine the right of every person in this country to have access to healthcare, not on the basis of who your doctor is, but on the basis of need.

Liberal Democrats will reform the GP funding structure. More choice for GPs over how they handle their budgets. But equal access and fair treatment for all patients.

We will establish a National Inspectorate for Health Services and Social Care, to guarantee minimum standards of care for patients.

And, as one of our core commitments, we will provide enough money to cut waiting lists to a maximum of six months between diagnosis and treatment within three years.

Let me remind you of those six objectives.

To promote good health.

To prevent ill health.

To shift resources from bureaucracy into patient care.

To improve planning.

To provide more doctors and nurses for better patient care.

To cut waiting lists and set national standards people can rely on.

Proposals to build a healthy Britain, and a Health Service we can all rely on in the years ahead.

And now, the big question?

How will we pay for these proposals? After all, extra doctors and nurses, shorter waiting lists and free eye and dental checks all cost money.

How would we do it? Answer. By putting an extra five pence on the price of a packet of cigarettes to pay for free eye and dental check-ups. And to fund extra staff and shorter waiting lists? By closing off a tax loophole exploited by the very rich to avoid paying National Insurance.

Look in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and you’ll see how the figures add up.

You don’t get ‘never never land’ promises with the Liberal Democrats. Only straight-forward, specific commitments.

Free eye and dental check-ups for everyone in Britain.

Maximum six month waiting lists in three years.

Up to 10,000 new nurses on hospital wards.

Clear. Costed. Common sense.

The party of Beveridge and Lloyd George is the only party in this election with costed plans for improving the service provided by the NHS. The ambitions of the others are now limited to trying to keep up.

The Conservative record and the Conservative agenda are clear for all to see.

But what of Labour?

This morning we had all the melodrama of Labour telling us we had 14 days to save the NHS. But they refuse to answer the one question that really matters when it comes to saving services in the NHS. Where does the money come from?

Everyone knows you don’t get something for nothing - however hard Labour pretend you can.

With the Labour Party now committed to the Conservative spending plans, far from saving the NHS, Labour like the Conservatives will bring the NHS to its knees.

That is the truth at this election.

Fifty years ago, the post-war Labour Government engaged doctors in a ‘battle royal’ to drag them into the new NHS against their wishes. Today, the Labour Party plans to spend less over the next three years than half the amount the Tories have spent over the last few years to bring the NHS to its present state of crisis.

What a contrast!

Where is the courage? Where is the vision? Where is the crusade on behalf of the weak, the disadvantaged and the ill?

After 18 years, we now have fourteen days to sweep the Conservatives out of office. To sweep out the old assumptions. To sweep out the ‘can’t do’ attitudes.

That is what the Liberal Democrats offer. A clean sweep. A fresh start.

Say goodbye to boom and bust economics.

Vote for long-term investment and the stability that businesses need for success.

Say goodbye to the concentration of power in Westminster and Whitehall.

Vote for open government, a Bill of Rights, an elected Senedd here in Wales, a Parliament in Scotland, more power in our local communities and a fairer voting system.

Say goodbye to timid gestures on the environment.

Vote for green action in every area of government.

Say goodbye to tough slogans on law and order which do nothing to solve crime.

Vote for 3,000 more bobbies on the beat and a new deal for victims of crime.

Say goodbye to the ward closures, bed shortages and the cancelled operations.

Vote for shorter waiting lists, more staff on wards, and a healthier nation.

Say goodbye to those cramped classrooms, those out of date books, those leaky roofs and those undervalued teachers.

Vote for 10 billion pounds of extra investment in education.

For smaller classes. New books and equipment in our schools. Nursery education for every three and four year old in Britain.

Say goodbye to fantasy promises.

Say goodbye to politics as usual.

Vote to make a difference.

Because it’s time for a different approach.

Time for a fresh start.

Time for the Liberal Democrats.

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