BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.03.02

Interview: Interview with Michael Howard MP, Shadow Chancellor.

Will the Conservatives support an increase in taxes to pay for higher spending on the NHS.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Conservative Party Conferences have been more like wakes for the past few years. Endless reflections on what's going wrong and why aren't the opinion polls shifting and will they ever get back into power, assuming they survive at all. Well, they're all in Harrogate this weekend for their Spring conference and (whisper it quietly) there are some stirrings of optimism. Tender little shoots, to be sure at the moment, and maybe they'll soon be nipped off by a late frost. But there's a bit more confidence out there, enough even, to challenge the government on what has always been seen as Labour's own ground, the protection of the vulnerable and the NHS. The Shadow Chancellor, Michael Howard, is in Harrogate, Mr Howard, good afternoon. MICHAEL HOWARD MP: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: Good, you're hearing me. You're worried, or you want to persuade us that you're deeply concerned about vulnerable, the vulnerable people in our society, but it might be difficult to persuade the voters of that if they believe that you want to scrap the NHS as we know it and that is what you want to do isn't it? I emphasise as we know it. HOWARD: What we want to...what we want to do is to find the best way of providing world class health care to the people of this country. That's what we want to do. And in doing that, unlike Gordon Brown, we think there are lessons that can be learned from abroad. We don't have a closed mind. Gordon Brown said last week, there's nothing we can learn from abroad, we don't have to look elsewhere. Now we know that healthcare is delivered more effectively in some other countries than it is here. We know for example that there are hardly any waiting lists in countries in Europe. I know because some of my own constituents are benefiting from the moment, from the fact that they can go to France for operations which they'd have to wait ages for in this country. So we know they do things better in some other countries, we're looking to see what lessons can be learned and when we've completed that exercise, but not before, we will come up with a solution which we believe, will deliver to the people of this country, the world class healthcare that they need and they deserve. Why should people in our country suffer in circumstances when they wouldn't if they lived elsewhere. Why should they die from conditions and illnesses from which they wouldn't die if they lived elsewhere? HUMPHRYS: Well, we don't know yet exactly what you're going to do because you presumably haven't decided in detail yet what you're going to do but we do know because of things your leader has said, amongst other things, that you do expect us ultimately to be paying, or many of us, I should say many of us, to be paying more for our health care than we are at the moment, paying it directly perhaps in GPs fees, or whatever it may be. Now if that is the case, then we will end up, and some of your people have been critical about what you call a two-tier health service over these past few days, we'll have an even greater disparity between one tier and the other tier in the health service. HOWARD: We're not ruling things in and out so I'm not going to speculate on what our solution might ultimately be. But last year alone, there were two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people in this country, a quarter of a million people, who paid for operations, not through some insurance scheme, but out of their own pockets because they were so appalled at how long they would have to wait if those operations were to be carried out on the health service. We do already have a two-tier system and our people are suffering. I've referred before, I referred in my speech this morning, to my eighty-three-year old constituent, who was told that he would have to wait eighty-three weeks for an appointment with a neurologist, not for an operation, but for an appointment with a neurologist. How can the Chancellor of the Exchequer say in those circumstances, we've got nothing to learn from abroad, our system is much the best in the world. It patently, manifestly isn't. And where there are lessons to be learned, we are determined to learn them. HUMPHRYS: You're not backing away from the idea of paying more are you, of some people paying more? Because Iain Duncan Smith was as I say, was quite clear on this very programme, he said yes, more people would be prepared to pay, he even suggested that we might perhaps pay to see our GPs. You're not abandoning all that are you? HOWARD: No he didn't suggest it. He wasn't prepared to rule it out. And I'm not prepared to rule anything out either. But we will come forward with our proposal. I promise you this John, because it is very important, we will produce very detailed, carefully thought through, and worked out proposals, well in advance of the next General Election, because unlike Gordon Brown, I want there to be a proper debate about this. Unlike him, I don't say I want a debate and then close it down in the same speech five minutes later as he did when he delivered his pre-Budget Report. There should be a proper, well-informed public debate about it, if there is to be that kind of debate, I fully accept that we need to bring forward our proposals in detail, so that people can chew over them, and look at their advantages and disadvantages, in good time before the next election, but we're only nine months away from the last election, and if our exercise in trying to find out the best way of providing health care for Britain is to be a real exercise and not a sham, then we've got to have the time to take over it, to do what is necessary, to see what is best for the people of this country. HUMPHRYS: I take that point, but we can say here and now can't we that if we want a better service it is going to cost more. It is going to cost more public money, it is a National Health Service, it'll cost more. You talked earlier about France and Germany and countries like that, well they spend a hugely greater proportion of their national wealth on the health service than we do. HOWARD: Right, well there are two points to be made there. They, the other countries do spend a greater proportion of their national income on health than we do. But in many cases, it's not the bit that comes from taxes that is bigger, it's the bit that comes from other resources. So that's one point to be borne in mind. Another is this. And this is, at least as important, money alone won't do it. If you, you don't have to look very far away to see that. If you look at Scotland, in Scotland spending on health is twenty-two per cent a head higher than it is in England. They are already spending at European levels. They're spending at well above what the government say should be the government's target for the whole of the UK. And in Scotland, waiting times are getting longer, and the proportion of people who die from heart disease and lung disease is much higher than it is in England, so money alone, without reform, won't do the trick. We've got to have proper reform of the way in which we deliver health care in this country. The government have been talking about reform for years, ever since they came to office, but they haven't delivered it. We will deliver it, we are undertaking a, a sensible process. We're looking to see what the best system is, then we'll see how much money it takes to deliver that system, then we'll see how we can best find that money, where those resources can come from, that is a sensible sequence, that's what we're engaged on, and when we've completed it, we come forward with a ..... worked-out scheme, and then I want you to question me as, and Liam Fox, and everyone else involved, as rigorously as you normally do about all its implications. HUMPHRYS: Well we'll certainly do that. But, but you are saying quite clearly that we do need more money as well as the reforms that you would like to see brought in. HOWARD: There may well be a need for more resources. It won't necessarily be sensible for all those resources to be provided through taxation, that's something we'll be much clearer about when we've completed this very serious and rigorous exercise that we're engaged in. HUMPHRYS: So if Gordon Brown as we all expect him to, pushes up let us say National Insurance in the next Budget, and he tells us, as he's already telling us, that we're going to need that money for a better National Health Service, you would say, we will support you in that Mr. Brown, as opposed to opposing you. HOWARD: No, I'm not going to say what my attitude to the Budget will be because Gordon Brown won't tell us what's in the Budget, so I don't think it's reasonable for me to say what my attitude's going to be. What I do say is this, it will not make sense just to pour more money into the National Health Service as it exists at the present, without reforming it. Now in saying that, I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not criticising the doctors and the nurses and the many other people who deliver such dedicated and selfless service, the trouble is the system. Instead of working within a system which is helping them to work effectively and to help people get better, they're working in a system that hampers them, and some cases stops them. It's not their fault, it's the system's fault. And until you really reform the system and put that right, putting extra money into the Health Service won't deliver the goods, won't give us what we all want to see, and you've only got to look to see what's happening in Scotland for proof of that. HUMPHRYS: But if you were to oppose the government, saying we're going to put a load more money into the NHS and in order to do that, we're going to put up taxes. If you as the Conservative Opposition were to oppose that, the public would be right to thing, hmmn, I wonder what they meant about improving services? About improving public services, wouldn't they? HOWARD: No, I think the public are much more sensible than that John, and I think they will look and see what happens in Scotland, I think there's an opinion poll out this morning which shows a majority of people very sceptical about the proposition that you can simply improve health in this country by increasing taxes. The, the key task is to carry out the reform to make sure that we have the right system. You, you've just had the most astonishing interview with Peter Mandelson, the great guru of New Labour, someone we're told Tony Blair listens to, talks to every day on the telephone, what was he recommending for this crisis that we have in our public services, with the Health Service, and Transport and Law and Order is such disarray? He was giving you a lecture on spin, and ticking off the media for the way in which they report what the government does. That shows you how far this government has got its priorities wrong. Instead of concentrating on how it can spin better, it should be concentrating on how it can deliver to our country the public services we so desperately need. HUMPHRYS: Michael Howard, thanks very much indeed for joining us.
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.