BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 21.04.02

Interview: MICHAEL HOWARD MP, Shadow Chancellor.

Are the Conservatives out of touch with the voters in opposing tax increases to pay for more spending on the NHS?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Whatever else the government achieved with its budget last week it's put new life back into the political debate. It's raising taxes to spend on the NHS and the old ideological divide between Labour and Conservative has been re-opened. Or has it? Are the Tories prepared to fight the tax increase tooth and nail and be seen to be denying the NHS all that extra cash - are they prepared to risk that? The Shadow Chancellor Michael Howard is with me. Can I assume first, Mr Howard, just to put it on the record that you are going to vote against those National Insurance increases? MICHAEL HOWARD MP: Yes, we will and we will, not because we don't accept that the Health Service needs more money, it does, but because we think that without change we won't see the difference in the Health Service that we all want to see. We entirely accept the ideas of the National Health Service, we believe in a first class Health Service, available to people when they need it, without regard to their ability to pay, we are further away from those ideas now, than probably we've never been since the Health Service was founded and we don't think the government has any idea as to what to do, to bring us back to those ideas to put them into practice. HUMPHRYS: So you would reverse those increases, those tax increases, if and when you had the chance. HOWARD: I don't know what the national finances are going to look like in three years' time.. HUMPHRYS: Following from what you've just said.. HOWARD: No, because I'm telling you what we will do - you've asked me a question about what we'll do this week and I can answer that. You've then asked me a question about what we'll do in three and bit years' time and I can't yet answer that. HUMPHRYS: Well I'm assuming if you don't like tax increases doing that kind of thing, then when you have an opportunity you would reverse those taxes. HOWARD: What we will do on health very specifically is this, long before the next election we will have produced a plan which will really show how we can live up to the ideas of the National Health Service and we will show how that plan will be funded, how much money it needs to become a reality and we will also explain in detail, how it is to be financed, how much of it comes from taxation and how much from other sources. So we will put that plan before the electorate in detail, in good time before the next election, so that we can have a proper debate because this is a very important issue and I want there to be a proper debate. HUMPHRYS: Sure and I don't expect you to give me the detail of your plan yet obviously, because as you say you've got a long time and why haul it up and have it shot at at this stage even if you had it all prepared. But are you prepared at least to say that you would match the amount of money that Labour is then spending on the NHS and its policies to spend more. HOWARD: What we will spend, will depend on our plan and what it needs. We're not going to take as our starting point what Labour is doing because they have so far failed and we think they are going to continue to fail. We are going to work out an alternative way, a different and a better way of providing that first class Health Service, available when people need it, without regard to their ability to pay and we will make sure that the resources that are needed to fund that system will be in place. HUMPHRYS: But they might come from other sources. In other words the reality is that you might not spend as much taxpayers' money on the NHS as the outgoing government? HOWARD: That's something that we will look at at the time and we will make it plain at the time. We will make sure that we have a first class Health Service and that we provide the money that's needed to make that service a reality. HUMPHRYS: So it is possible that you'd go into the next election, not able to say, or not prepared..not willing to say we will spend as much as is now being spent on the NHS. Because that's a pretty risky political position to get into. HOWARD: It's a realistic proposition. We're not, if you provide a different...if you are offering a different system which is what we are going to do, then the sensible thing to do... HUMPHRYS: You know that, you know you'll offer a different system. HOWARD: We know there are lessons to be learned, that's the point. We know that other countries do things differently, do things better and we are determined to learn lessons from the way they do it and we have an open mind about that.. HUMPHRYS:'ve decided that it will be different. HOWARD: It will be different certainly, the government has a closed mind, it says unless this is invented here we're not interested in it, it's not prepared to learn any lessons from abroad, we are, we know there are lessons to be learned and we will learn those lessons, we will come up with a plan that will deliver what the people of this country want and we will make sure that it's properly funded. HUMPHRYS: But you have a closed mind to this extent. You have decided at this stage that what is in place at the moment, and the reforms, however different it will be bearing in mind the reforms that are now being introduced, you are quite clear as we sit here this morning, that that is not going to work. You have a closed mind to that extent. HOWARD: Well, look at what's happened since this government came to office. HUMPHRYS: I'd rather look to the future, rather than.... HOWARD: Well, I know, but this is quite a good guide to the future. In 1998, Tony Blair said: we're making a massive new investment of resources into the Health Service and it will lead to improved patient care. It hasn't. In 2000, we had, two years later, we had the ten year plan. HUMPHRYS: That's what this is, the same.. HOWARD: Well it isn't. HUMPHRYS: He told me, I mean Alan Milburn sat there and said... HOWARD: There was nothing in the ten year plan about the things that he announced last Thursday that he was talking to you about this week. This is all we're told, new. So it wasn't in the ten year plan. Here we have a ten year plan, this is meant to make it clear the way we're going on health over the next ten years. This is a government that doesn't sort of change every couple of years or anything like that, this is a ten year plan. Two years later we've got a completely different approach. Now we don't think this government has the faintest idea what to do. They don't know how to deliver health care that will really meet the needs of this country. You can test it, you can look at what's been happening in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland where they spend much, much more than we do in England, much more per head. They spend at European standards and waiting times have been getting a lot..... HUMPHRYS: But they are talking about reforming the system as you know, not just chucking more money at it, but reforming the system and my question to you is... HOWARD: ...they've been talking about it for years. HUMPHRYS: Alright, but now we have a plan... HUMPHRYS: ...and you heard me debating it with Alan Milburn, the point I'm trying to make to you, is that you're, you seem to be saying that, even if it works, it won't be right for the NHS and you will have something different. HOWARD: We don't have a clear idea at all. Just a few months ago, long after they announced their ten-year plan, ten months ago, on the twenty-sixth of June last year, Alan Milburn told the House of Commons, we have a monopoly provider in this country, and as long as there's a Labour government we will continue to have that monopoly provider. Now if that's what we are offered by this Labour government we know that that is not going to work. HUMPHRYS: Isn't there a danger that you are quite seriously out of touch with the population as a whole. I'm looking at the results of the opinion poll that have been conducted since last Wednesday, seventy-six per cent support, massive support for those National Insurance increases. HOWARD: And twenty per cent said they didn't think it would lead to an improvement in healthcare. HUMPHRYS: Three-quarters of the population say they like the idea of paying more through taxation in order to improve the NHS. HOWARD: Yes, and I can quite understand people wanting to pay more if indeed there was to be an improvement in the NHS, but you will also know that in those very same opinion polls, only twenty per cent of people said they thought that the money would actually lead to an improvement, and I'm very sorry to say that I think they're right. HUMPHRYS: But they overwhelmingly want to give this a go. Want to pay the extra money, want it to go into the NHS and what you're saying to them this morning is, we've already decided that that is the wrong thing to do, even though you don't know the outcome of it. HOWARD: What I'm saying is that this won't work. We've heard this sort of thing before. Every couple of years since Labour's come to office, we've had more promises, new plans, and every couple of years those promises have been seen to be broken, we haven't seen the improvements that we all want to see, there has to be a better way. HUMPHRYS: Alright. What the polls also show, and this might encourage you I suppose, people want to look at other ways of funding, so in a sense you're push, you may well be pushing at an open door here, why then are you so coy? Why won't you come right out and say that? I mean, we heard Dr. Liam Fox, your Health Spokesman, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, saying 'we've got to break the notion', I'm reading from what he was quoted as saying 'we've got to break the notion that health care in the NHS are synonymous, more money has to be more self pay' but the interesting thing about that is that was said privately, and none of you will say that publicly. Why not? HOWARD: We haven't got a plan yet. And if we did have a plan, if we did have a plan John, you, you'd laugh me out of this studio. It's ten months, it's ten months since the last election. We are working very seriously on this. It's not a political gimmick, it's a serious piece of work. We want to get it right. We want to put forward a plan which will improve the health care of the people of this country, which will improve the NHS, which will live up to the ideals of the NHS and that's going to take time, but as soon as we are ready, because I want there to be a proper debate on this, believe me, as soon as we are ready, we will produce the plan, and then people... HUMPHRYS: ...fine. HOWARD: ...can look at the plan, and chew over all its details and they don't need to take anything on trust... HUMPHRYS:, but... HOWARD: ...because it will all be there for people to see. HUMPHRYS: But in the meantime they are entitled to say, look, what is the broad principle that you applying here, and we seem to hear it loud and clear from Dr. Fox, but only in private, and nobody seems prepared to say in principle, this is our idea to make people... HOWARD: ...I'll tell you why we don't do that. We won't do that because we know that if we do that it will be absolutely misrepresented and caricatured by the government. HUMPHRYS: ...but you're big boys, you can defend yourselves. HOWARD: No, but that's why it's much better to come forward with a detailed plan so that it can't be caricatured or misrepresented by the government so that we have all the answers and people can see and decide for themselves whether that's the road they want to go down, or whether they want to carry on with one I'm afraid is a failing system, which will not give them what they want and what they deserve. HUMPHRYS: Michael Howard, many thanks. HOWARD: Thank you.
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.