Thursday, April 27, 2006

Patricia Hewitt and the nurses

In many ways Patricia Hewitt deserves everything that happened to her at the Royal College of Nursing conference yesterday and more.

This is a woman who served as director of the National Council for Civil Liberties (the old name for Liberty) and now sits in a cabinet that has brought in detention without trial and is planning to bring in compulsory identity cards.

This is the woman who excoriated Jim Callaghan at the 1979 Labour Conference - apparently he lost the election to Mrs Thatcher because the British people were disgusted at his failure to bring in true socialist policies - and condemned Labour MPs who did not vote for Tony Benn as deputy leader in 1981. Today she is at the heart of New Labour.

When someone has a record like that, the natural reaction is to sit back and laugh at any political misfortune that befalls them. But two things give me pause.

Firstly, over recent years government spending on health has increased enormously. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker write:
In 2000, an anxious Tony Blair made a promise to raise UK health spending as a proportion of GDP to the EU average. Soon after the 2001 election, Gordon Brown laid his plans by commissioning Derek Wanless, formerly of NatWest, to review the long-term needs of the NHS in time for Brown's three-year forward spending plan in 2002. 
So it was only in the second term that NHS spending, £67.4bn in 2004-2005, geared up. There was so little dissent that the Conservatives were soon obliged to promise that they would match the largesse. 
At the time of Blair's 2000 pledge, UK health was 6.8% of GDP and the EU average was 8%. Blair had said that the UK would get to the EU average by 2006. Scotland was there in 2004. The following year, UK health spending was to rise to more than £100bn a year, or some 9% of GDP.
If such levels of spending leave members of the Royal College apoplectic with rage, one has to ask just what levels they do want to see.

As a good Liberal Democrat I believe that the nurses' anger in the face of this largesse is a sign that the National Health Service is far too centralised. But it is silly to pretend that any government is going to spend much more on health than this one has.

Secondly, Hewitt was ridiculed for her statement that the NHS has just enjoyed its best year ever. Those who criticise her for saying it should say when they believe the NHS's best year was.

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