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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 22:00 GMT
NHS reform row intensifies
A nurse tends a patient
Taxes could rise to pay for NHS reform
The row over government tax and spend plans for the National Health Service has intensified after a rowdy Commons confrontation between Chancellor Gordon Brown and his Conservative counterpart, Michael Howard.

Mr Howard provoked fury from Labour MPs when, during the opening speech, he called the NHS a "Stalinist creation".

The NHS is indeed is a Stalinist creation

Michael Howard
He went on to accuse the government of being in a "blind panic" about the state of the service.

But the chancellor responded by attacking the Tories for wanting to abolish a "comprehensive health service free at the point of need".

Monday night's clash - which saw deputy speaker Sylvia Heal having to repeatedly call for order - was a Conservative attempt to keep the heat on the government following Mr Brown's pre-Budget report pledge to increase NHS spending.

The chancellor and Prime Minister Tony Blair have indicated "general taxation" will fund the rises while pledging election promises not to raise the basic and upper rates of income tax remain intact.

Ambition downgraded

However, the debate follows an apparent move by Prime Minister Tony Blair to play down a pledge to raise health spending to the European average by 2005, renewed in the House of Commons last week.

In an interview at the weekend Mr Blair downgraded the ambition to a "broad aim".

Then Downing Street moved to distance Mr Blair from the original commitment as the Tories claimed the government was in disarray over its reform plans.

We believe in a NHS free at the point of use. It's clear the Opposition now don't.

Gordon Brown
Party leader Iain Duncan Smith joined the attack from Stockholm, where he was finishing a health service fact-finding mission alongside shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox .

With Mr Brown committing the government to only using state funds, ministers had "closed minds" about the future of the health service, Mr Duncan Smith said.

In the Commons, Mr Howard said the government was breaking "promise after promise" over NHS funding.

Challenged over newspaper remarks he made last week, the shadow chancellor told MPs: "The NHS is indeed is a Stalinist creation. Yes it is."

'Staff hindered'

"That would be the age in which it was born and does much more to hinder and hamper the efforts of those who work in it, who work heroically despite it, than it does to help them."

As Labour MPs heckled Mr Howard, the chancellor - who accused Tories of wanting to charge for NHS services - warned his opposite number had made a "very big mistake"

"What you are saying is that when the health service was created, it was wrong at that time. It was the wrong thing even for 1948," he told the shadow chancellor.

"Now we've got the Conservative Party abandoning a consensus that was accepted by Sir Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Lady Thatcher - who all believed we should not abandon the NHS."

NHS in 'dire straits'

Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman, said the Tory belief the NHS was a Stalinist institution showed why they had left it in "dire straits".

Staff would be "appalled" at the comment, he added.

The debate was getting underway as a poll emerged suggesting Britons are prepared to pay more income tax to improve the NHS - but not enough to match European Union average health spending.

The NOP survey of 699 people for Channel 4 News found 66% of voters would pay more tax for a better NHS, compared to 27% who would not and 6% who paid no income tax anyway.

The BBC's David Wilby
"This was a rowdy... affair"
See also:

03 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Government 'chaos' over tax plans
01 Dec 01 | Health
NHS management review ordered
30 Nov 01 | UK Politics
'Blind panic' jibe on NHS funding
30 Nov 01 | Health
'Chaotic NHS cannot improve'
29 Nov 01 | England
NHS manager faces jail over fraud
29 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Wanless 'open' to private finance
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