Michael Howard – 2002 Speech at Conservative Spring Forum

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Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Howard, the then Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the Conservative Spring Forum on 24th March 2002.

Before I begin may I just say a few words about Lady Thatcher. The Chairman paid tribute to her yesterday and I don’t want to repeat what he said. We are all devastated by Friday’s news. I was privileged to serve in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. I want to say one thing about her great record as Prime Minister. Her reforms were not introduced to protect the privileged.

The sale of council houses brought home ownership within the reach of people who had only dreamed of it before. The reform of the trade unions helped free every worker from the tyranny of un-elected union bosses.

With these, and with so many more of the changes she made the result, to borrow a phrase, was to benefit the many, not the few. It is very important that that is not forgotten.

Lady Thatcher is not with us today but may I say how delighted I am to see all of you here. Throughout this conference we have been talking about how to make people’s lives better. I am not sure that I am setting a very good example by asking you all to come and hear me make a speech on a Sunday morning! But after last night’s escapade we both have an excuse if you fall asleep.

But our public services are of vital importance, whether we talk about them on a Sunday or indeed any other day of the week.

And let’s remember those public service workers who are at work this morning and every Sunday morning – in our hospitals, policing our streets, coming to deal with fires or reports of fires in the early hours and doing all the other things we ask them to do on our behalf.

Their role is crucial to my role as Shadow Chancellor.

Much of the time, I am expected to talk about the economy. And by definition, a great deal of economic debate seems somewhat abstract and remote from the real world.

But we all know and understand one essential truth. The economy lies at the very heart of the success of our public services. And vice versa. A strong economy delivers the resources necessary to deliver good public services. But at the same time, weak public services can do serious damage to the economy.

Hospital waiting lists mean your colleagues are off work much longer than they should be.

Thousands are made late for work every day by delayed trains.

Poor schools mean that many school leavers can’t get work because they lack basic skills.

Of course deteriorating public services affect the economy – because they affect all of us, those who work in them and those who use them and those who rely on others who use them.

The public services are the beating heart of Britain, and we must improve them.

Labour’s Broken Promises

When Iain became leader, and asked me to be his Shadow Chancellor, we both agreed that we would not indulge in opposition for opposition’s sake. We would give credit to the Government where it was due. Indeed only a few days ago I congratulated Gordon Brown on making the Bank of England independent.

But I can’t find it in my heart to congratulate the Government on the state of the public services in Britain today. I would like to. The country would be better off if I could. And after all, Labour put the public services at the heart of their 1997 election campaign.

And what an opportunity they had – a huge majority, a strong economy, an appetite for reform. And let’s face it, at that time, the trust of the nation. It was a golden opportunity and they blew it.

Look back at the promises they made. Things can only get better they said. Twenty-four hours to save the NHS, they said. Well, they have had almost 43,000 hours to save the NHS, and it is still on the waiting list!

Every year they make these promises, and every year they break them. Can you believe a Government that had its Year of Delivery in 1999? Or a Government that entered its 2001 election campaign promising to put Schools and Hospitals First? What on earth were they doing in the previous four years?

Now we are told that taxes will have to go up in next month’s Budget to pay for the NHS. But why should we be surprised? Every year Labour has promised better public services in return for higher taxes. But every year they just deliver the higher taxes – forty five of them to date. From industry to individuals, from petrol to pensions.

You name it, they’ve taxed it.

This Labour Government is now taking nearly £100 billion more from the taxpayer every year than we took in 1997 – £35 every week for every man, woman and child in this country.

And the services just get worse.

I don’t need to spell it out.

We all know that since Labour renationalised the railways, train delays are up by a third.

We all know that teachers are leaving in droves. Thousands of trained teachers have quit even before they have started teaching.

We all know that Labour haven’t met their 1997 pledge to reduce waiting lists. As it happens some of my constituents are luckier than most, they can go to France to get the operations they need. But what a reflection on the state of the NHS that people have to be sent abroad for treatment they want and should receive at home in this country.

The Need for Reform

None of this is the fault of the people who teach in our schools, work in our hospitals and try to keep our streets safe, the people to whom I paid tribute five minutes ago.

Part of the blame lies with the Government’s sheer incompetence – for example the £3 billion allocated to key public services last year which simply wasn’t spent.

But the biggest problem is that instead of working in a system that helps them work effectively, they work in a system that stops them working effectively.

And if, even after Labour’s record of failure, anyone still thinks that more taxpayers’ money alone is the answer, they should just look at Scotland. There, spending on the NHS per head of the population is more than a fifth higher than it is in England. And total spending on health in Scotland is already higher – much higher – than the target the Government has set for the UK as a whole.

And the result? In Scotland, waiting times are rising. In fact in the last three years, the average wait for an outpatient appointment has increased by 10 days. And a third more people die of heart disease and 40 per cent more people die of lung disease than in England.

That is not the sort of record I want to see – in Scotland, in England, or anywhere.

There must be a better way. And it’s up to us to provide it.

Lessons from Abroad

Last week Gordon Brown said there were no lessons to be learned from abroad. There’s nothing, he said, that other countries can teach us about healthcare.

Try saying that to people like my 83-year old constituent who was told he’d have to wait 83 weeks for an appointment with a neurologist. Try saying that to the 250,000 people who have had to pay for their operations out of their own pockets because they can’t get them on the NHS.

How can he say that when we know they do things better elsewhere?

Gordon Brown has a closed mind. You remember what Henry Ford said about the Model T – you can have any colour you want so long as it’s black. Well, the Chancellor is the Henry Ford of the health service. You can have any policy you want so long as it’s Brown’s!

There is one promise we can make now to the British people. We will approach these questions with an open mind.

Where there are lessons to be learned we shall learn them.

Where there are improvements which can be made we shall make them.

If there is an alternative that is better we shall pursue it.

We shall do all we can to provide this country with world class healthcare, world class transport, world class education, and world class standards of law and order. Nothing else will do.

Challenges to Conservatives

That means two things.

First, we must be prepared to reform. Labour promised reform. In fact Gordon Brown said last year: `There will not be one penny more until we get changes to let us make reforms and carry out the modernisation the health service needs’. But he hasn’t delivered reform and we haven’t seen the modernisation.

We shall deliver them both through more local management, through more choice, through greater diversity of provision.

And the second lesson is even more important: for Conservatives, reforming and improving our public services must be our priority.

Now, I know that many people in this country have struggled to pay the extra taxes which Labour have imposed since 1997. And I have always believed that low tax economies are more successful economies.

But there are times when priorities must lie elsewhere.

Today, Madame Chairman, is such a time. Our public services have now reached the point of crisis. At a time when the Government has failed patients, passengers and parents alike, reforming and improving these services must be our overriding priority.

Of course that does not stop us being critical of further tax rises. Taxes have already risen. But without reform, the money is not delivering the improvements in services we all want to see. Labour’s tax rises just aren’t working. More of the same won’t work any better.

The Conservative approach is different. We will decide what needs to be done to improve the public services, what reforms are needed, what resources these require, and how this should best be financed.

Then – and only then – will we decide our approach to spending on our public services. So don’t believe any claims from Tony Blair about so-called Tory plans. Our plans are still being worked on. Until they have been announced whatever Tony Blair says about them should not be entered in Hansard. It should be entered for the Booker prize for fiction.

Conclusion

Madam Chairman. This Government has been in power for almost five years. Does anyone believe things have got better? And does anyone doubt the reasons why?

Spin doctors won’t move sick relatives up the waiting list. Focus groups won’t make the trains run on time. Soundbites won’t give people’s children a decent education. When it comes to people’s needs today, New Labour simply have nothing to offer.

Conservatives must offer something different.

Of course, we are not pretending that is going to be easy.

We must examine our priorities.

We must change the way we go about things.

We must challenge our thinking.

But if we have the courage to propose real, practical ways to make our public services better, the prizes will be great.

We will be able to achieve what Labour promised to achieve. What Labour were elected to achieve. And what Labour have failed to achieve:

– Health care that is truly the envy of the world.

– Transport systems that are truly world class.

– Schools that truly extend opportunity wider than ever before.

– Safety for the people of our country in their homes and on their streets.

We must show how we will make people’s lives better. On that we should be judged. And on that we must – and we shall – deliver.