BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 27.01.02

Interview: JOHN REID, Northern Ireland Secretary

Says the Conservatives have made a big mistake in attacking the performance of the NHS and defends the Government's health policies.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: And let me turn to Northern Ireland where the Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid, is waiting for us. Dr Reid Good afternoon. DR JOHN REID: Good afternoon John. JOHN HUMPHRYS: David Blunkett, Alan Milburn, both of them have said in the last couple of days, that lessons should be learned from what happened on the floor of the House of Commons and the way the whole thing was handled on Wednesday and thereafter. One lesson, surely, is that it is a mistake for the Prime Minister to get involved in individual cases in the way that he did and it's no good saying, well he had no choice because it was raised by the leader of the Opposition, he did have a choice of course because he could have said, I'll look into that later and in the meantime etc, etc, etc. REID: Well, how should this debate be conducted and I agree with the person who said that dredging up cases of personal misery is the lowest form of political debate. That wasn't me, that was Liam Fox, your last guest... HUMPHRYS: ..though of course you did it yourselves when you were in Opposition time and again... REID: I beg your pardon, we didn't do, we gave anonymous examples of the type of thing that happened. Nevertheless, I agree with you, I mean the way to conduct this debate is not to count up individual complaints letters and then pit them against individual thank you cards, many of which are sent to the NHS. It's first of all to try and..and I'm very glad that we're now trying to separate the views of the various parties on this and that's why I think Iain Duncan Smith has made a terrible, long term blunder last week because there is a distinct difference. We believe that the public ethos or public service should be supported, we should put in more money into the Health Service and that we should reform it in order to make its output more efficient. The Conservatives believe in cutting back in the money in the public services down to thirty-five per cent of GDP, about twenty billion pounds out and running down the ethos of the public service and going, as you properly pointed out, towards private sector provision. In other words, we put forward an NHS solution and the Conservatives are putting forward, not an NHS solution but a DIY solution. It is not a National Health Service provision they seek to get to solve the problem, it's a do it yourself provision which is fine for the top ten per cent, but for ninety per cent of the people of this country, will leave them with a worse service. HUMPHRYS: But just to finish off that point about Tony Blair's handling of the case on Wednesday, I mean surely when he got it wrong and I mean it is simply not true that you did not use individual cases, though I think you acknowledged that, certainly David Blunkett acknowledged that yesterday, he said we did it ten years ago and I can remember us doing it and he suggested that perhaps lessons should be learned from that. But the point is, what was wrong surely, was for Tony Blair then, to go on and attack the family of this old lady in the way that he did. REID: Well, what Tony and the other Labour spokesmen did, was to repeat what was already in the public domain from the hospital themselves. But I think you're right, what we ought to be doing is debating how we improve health provision in this country. Now, if we were to take the position that everything is perfect then I can see why the Conservatives might be justified in saying that everything is awful, but we have never done that. We have said that there is a lot being done to remedy the mistakes of the Conservative period but there is still a long way to go. But don't forget that over eighty per cent of people who are served by our National Health Service, are satisfied with it, eighty-six per cent in the last opinion poll in a Conservative newspaper. That by definition means that we have a long way to go, so how do we do it? First of all we put in more money, as we are doing, secondly we provide through that better resources, something like twenty seven thousand more nurses over six thousand seven hundred new doctors. But we also have to support the ethos of public services. What is the alternative being presented to people by Liam Fox and the Tories. It is to go back to the very policies that made the system at present incorporate deficiencies. In other words, to cut back on the spending, to tell people they have to provide their own Health Service and to denigrate those, I mean to say that people in the Health Service are treating people worse than dogs, that sort of language is an attack on the whole ethos of the public service and that's why I think that Iain Duncan Smith last week, and I understand why he did it, on the view that any publicity is good publicity and they are worried about the fact that he's unknown. He will find it isn't, he's now fighting on the ground of the public services and he's made a very, very serious strategic blunder. HUMPHRYS: Well but hang on a minute, I mean, it isn't as if it's just Iain Duncan Smith joining in this attack. We had two consultants, you'll have read about them this morning, or heard them on Radio Five this morning, two consultants themselves, no axe to grind, no political background, unlike the chap at the London Hospital, saying things are wretched, and the sort of thing that we heard about with this old lady happens over, and over and over again, and we have raised the question, now, there are, are they not allowed to do that themselves, damn it, they work in the Health Service. REID: Of course they're allowed to do that, and of course we admit there are deficiencies, but if the debate is conducted in terms of letters of complaint versus thank-you cards to hospital staff, then fair enough, we can go on doing that. There are, you know, millions of people in this country who have sent thank-you cards, who are satisfied with what they've had, millions of people, including myself incidentally.... HUMPHRYS: ...of course... REID: ...who owe our lives to the National Health Service, as a young man, my life was saved by the National Health Service, but that is not a very sensible way of doing it, by taking individual cases and swapping them and that is why the public last week got turned off. What they want to know is, who's committed to providing for the vast majority of people in this country, a National Health Service that is well funded, and we are doing that, the biggest ever sustained increase, who is intent on reforming the system, of persuading people, of arguing with them inside the Health Service to improve the output, and who on the other side, on the Conservative side, is arguing that actually public services are a bad thing, people in the public services are treating the patients awfully, and you ought to provide your own health service through private insurance... HUMPHRYS: What they want to know... REID: ...that is a debate I welcome. HUMPHRYS: Well what they want to know surely is the government of the day is on their side, and not on the side of the system, or on the side of the NHS, on the side of the producers, and the trouble is that you gave us very strongly, Tony Blair in particular, gave us very strongly the impression in the earliest days of your parliament, when New Labour was a new thing, that you were on the side of the patient and if necessary you would take the producers, the doctors, the nurses and the system itself to task. Well now, what's happened is you have been forced to do a turnaround on that have you not? REID: No we haven't... HUMPHRYS: ...and this is the difficulty that you're now facing and so it was a bit of an own goal for Tony Blair, wasn't it? REID: No we haven't done a turnaround John. When Tony Blair said a number of years ago that we were in difficulty arguing, persuading people to change, that was over things like literacy and numeracy. We took on that challenge and people now see that we were right to argue what we did, because we've improved the education system and we are prepared to meet that challenge in the National Health Service. But I tell you this, nobody can be on the side of their patient if they're against investment... HUMPHRYS: No, no (INTERRUPTION).... REID: one, let me finish John, you've asked a legitimate question. It is a different thing to say that we want to invest and we want people in the Health Service to look at all the methods, to look all the potential demarcation disputes, to put the patient first as we want to do it, and to go out of your way to denigrate people in the National Health Service by accusing them of treating people worse than animals. That was the line that was used last week, worse than dogs from the leader of the opposition. Now that isn't just something that's plucked out of the air, there is an agenda behind that, it is denigration with a purpose, it is to say to the British people, you can never get health provision through the National Health Service and therefore you have to go private. It is a DIY health service... HUMPHRYS: ...alright, but what they've done, is they've scored a direct hit one way or the other because you've had to...., let me remind you what Charles Kennedy of not the Conservative but Charles Kennedy leader of the Liberal Democrats said yesterday, Tony Blair now praises them, praises public service workers that is, because it suits him politically to do so. So they have had an effect haven't they, clearly? REID: First of all John, I don't accept that there's been a direct hit. I welcome very much that the leader of the opposition has moved the ground of argument onto the future of the National Health Service and the public services. He may have won a few minutes of glory, but he has lost the hours. He has made a strategic blunder. And secondly I can give you an even more modern quotation from Charles Kennedy because he was on the television this morning, saying that it was irresponsible for the leader of the opposition to try and dredge up an individual case of misery. It's alright for members of parliament of course to privately raise cases, but when someone does resort to what Liam Fox himself called 'the lowest form of debate' he will get publicity, of course. I mean, if I'm an nonentity and want to get myself into the papers I will do anything to get publicity but I may win the minutes but I will lose the hours because the real question here is who will provide the investment and the reform to give patients in Britain a National Health Service that will meet their needs and who is telling them to go away and do it themselves, offering them tax cuts, reduction in investment and denigration of the public services, that's how we got into this mess with the last Tory government and it's no answer to the future of the Health Service. HUMPHRYS: John Reid, I have to end it there, many thanks. REID: Thank you John.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.