Last week, I had meetings with the Mid Essex Primary Care Trust and the Mid Essex Hospitals Trust to discuss the state of our local Health Service. In recent years, painful decisions have had to be taken to bring the NHS budget in Mid Essex into balance but this year both organisations should end of the year having eliminated their deficits. However, due to the present economic situation, they have now been told that it is likely that there will be no increase in the money available over the next four years, a financial outlook that has not been seen before in the NHS. As a result, savings of £75 - 95 million will have to be found. Achieving this will require a radical rethink of how health care is provided with a massive effort to bring down costs by studying best practice across the country and adopting it here.

David Cameron has made clear that an incoming Conservative Government will protect the NHS with real terms increases in spending. However, the pressures created by an increasing and ageing population combined with often expensive advances in treatments mean that radical reform is necessary.

Under Labour, the NHS has turned into a giant machine controlled from above, responding to politicians, bureaucrats and managers. We want to give the NHS back to the doctors, nurses and professionals who work in it. Instead of setting top-down targets which distort clinical priorities, we will put healthcare professionals in charge of delivering patient care. We will also create a patient-led NHS where patients are able to choose where and when they receive treatment and we will give them information about how good different hospitals and doctors are.

By publishing information about the kind of results that healthcare providers are achieving, we will ensure that there is no hiding place for failure. If patients do not like what they are offered, they will be able to find something better. Making doctors and nurses accountable to patients, not to endless layers of bureaucracy, will also save money that can be put into frontline services instead.

Only the Conservatives have the reform programme that the NHS needs. By trusting professionals and providing the right incentives for them and by putting patient choice at the heart of the NHS, we will deliver the innovation and productivity gains needed so that the NHS will go on providing the standard of healthcare that patients expect.

Christmas and New Year are times when we want above all to be with our families. It is therefore all the more important that we remember those who our many thousands of miles from their own loved ones, serving their country in our armed forces.

More than three years after John Reid, then Defence Secretary, said that he hoped  the British troops being sent to Afghanistan to return home without a shot being fired, this year alone more than 100 British servicemen have died. The bravery displayed by our armed forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere has surpassed all that we are entitled to expect. Every soldier and their families should know that the whole country is right behind them and incredibly grateful for the work that they do.

Recently President Obama announced a big increase in American troops for Afghanistan. If you add to that the extra soldiers that we are sending, we now have the best chance to ensure that our counter-insurgency campaign is successful, to deliver a safer country to the Afghan authorities and then to bring our brave troops home.

One of the best ways that we can show our support for them is by honouring the Military Covenant under which we pledge that those who risk their lives in service of their country are entitled to receive the best possible care and support when they return home.

Last year, the Conservative Party launched its Military Covenant Commission under the chairmanship of Frederick Forsyth. It has examined the health of the Military Covenant and made suggestions on how Government and society could better fulfil the duty they owe our troops, their families and veterans.

The Commission included Falklands hero, Simon Weston, and the military historian and journalist Sir John Keegan. The Commission has now published its report outlining 57 recommendations to improve welfare policy for Service personnel, their families and veterans.  I with many of my colleagues have also signed the Royal British Legion campaign pledge to “do my bit” to improve the welfare of serving personnel, past and present, and their families.

We should be immensely proud of our Armed Forces whatever our views on recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our serving men and women, sailors, soldiers and airmen, are currently being let down. They must be able to trust the Government to look after their wellbeing and that of their families and our veterans.

Last week’s Budget was more notable for what it did not say that what it did. While it contained a number of worthy measures to promote micro-generation, to help our athletes prepare for the Olympics and to support those in further education, it did nothing to address the serious economic problems facing the country.

The tax burden in Britain is already at an all-time high. The increase in tax since Labour took office is equivalent to £9,000 per household yet this Budget adds another £5.5 billion to Britain’s tax bill over the next three years. Three of the most punitive and unfair taxes: stamp duty, inheritance tax and Council Tax are all set to rise still further. Last year, in a pre-election bribe, Gordon Brown gave pensioners £200 to help with Council Tax bills. This year, with the election safely out of the way, that payment has been dropped and pensioners will be left struggling to meet ever rising Council Tax bills unaided. Borrowing too has soared with the total over the next six years forecast to reach £175 billion - £7,000 for every family.
Having previously trumpeted the extra money going into the NHS, this year the Chancellor did not mention it all. Across the country, the NHS is facing a total deficit of nearly £1 billion with hospitals being forced to sack staff and operations cancelled. Locally, both the Chelmsford and Maldon Primary Care Trusts are in deficit with services being cut as a result. Also ignored was the looming Pensions crisis. The removal of dividend tax credits by Gordon Brown in 1997 has cost the pension funds £5 billion every year creating the present crisis. Household saving has almost halved and 85,000 people have lost their retirement savings because their company pension schemes have closed. Yet the Government has done nothing to implement the recommendations of its own Pensions Commission and has rejected the findings of the Ombudsman who concluded that the Government was guilty of maladministration in respect of thousands of pensioners who have lost their savings despite being assured by the Government that their pensions were safe.

Under Gordon Brown, Britain’s position in the world ranking of competitiveness has fallen from 4th to 13th. Productivity has fallen to a fifth of its level in 1997 and the trade deficit has reached a record level of £47 billion. Business investment is at its lowest since records began and international firms are moving their operations overseas. The new global economy offers great opportunities but Britain is struggling to compete. Gordon Brown has saddled us with high taxes, unproductive spending, increased borrowing and underperforming and unreformed public services. All this Budget offers is more of the same.

 

With Parliament’s return last week, we are now in the final stretch before the General Election which must be held within the next 8 months. And after 12 years of Labour Government, the country is desperate for change.

What ever the outcome, the task facing the next Government is immense. A full six months after the recession in France and Germany ended, our economy is still shrinking making it the longest and deepest recession in modern history. This year, our Government will borrow £1 in every £4 it spends. We have the largest budget deficit of any large economy, and the highest debt level since the Second World War.

So the priority for the next Government must be to get the public finances under control. That will require difficult and painful decisions including significant cuts in public spending and postponement of tax reductions. However, it is far better to be open and honest now than try to pretend that we can go on as we are. We also need responsibility when it comes to fixing our broken society, the bleak record of violent crime, long term unemployment and family breakdown.

That is why the Conservative Party is setting out plans to promote responsibility in all these areas. It includes a radical programme of school reform, giving parents more choice over where their children go to school, and more powers to teachers to improve discipline and behaviour in the classroom. We also need radical reform of our welfare system, getting people off a life on benefits and into work. We also recognise that people are not going to take lectures from politicians about responsibility unless they see politicians being responsible themselves. That is why the crisis over expenses has been so damaging and why we must have deep-rooted and lasting political reform. Part of that is about greater transparency and openness. Part of it is about reducing the cost of politics as a whole. But we also need to devolve more power to local people and make Government more accountable to them.

These are profound challenges which will confront whichever party is chosen to form the next Government. However, it is clear that our country desperately needs change and to achieve that we need a general election which cannot come soon enough.

 

With Council Tax bills landing on doorsteps soon, John sets out the background to local government spending in Essex.

I am often asked why, when inflation is only around 2.5 per cent, the average Council Tax for a band D property in Maldon and Chelmsford has gone up from around £640 in 1997 to around £1,100 this year. One of the main reasons for this is that the proportion of local government's spending financed by central Government has fallen over the past six years, meaning that the amount that has to be raised by council tax has gone up. At the same time, the Government has redirected money away from councils in the South East towards councils in the Midlands and North. This has hit Essex particularly hard so that last year, the County Council received the lowest grant settlement of any County Council in the country.

While the amount of money that Essex gets from the Government has been squeezed, our local councils have had to meet a raft of extra burdens and regulations that have been imposed upon them. Over 2,000 initiatives, strategies and partnerships involving local authorities have been created. Meanwhile, councils have also had to pay more for each of their employees due to the increase in National Insurance contributions as well as paying more to provide pensions for former employees due to the Government's Pension Fund tax. Many people are now struggling to meet their Council Tax bills, with pensioners being especially hard hit. I will continue to campaign for a fairer settlement for our county and, in the longer term, for the whole system of local government finance to be looked at again.

Page 1 of 2