Asked what direction the AV Bill was heading in, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman (PMS) said that he was not able to say much ahead of the debate, which had just started. We would see how that went and take stock this afternoon/evening.
Asked what the Government’s thoughts was on how to assuage those who had concerns about changing the size of the boundaries, the PMS said that Mark Harper had been talking about this today; we were talking to people about the different options. It was important that the fundamental purpose of the bill remained, which was that we had equal constituencies. It was not our intention to move away from that principle.
Asked how the Prime Minister felt about the prospect of a deal, the PMS said that we were talking about the options - various amendments had been put down. However, the basic package should remain, which was a referendum on AV and equalising constituencies.
Asked if it was true that Lord Strathclyde had offered to resign, the PMS said that he had not heard that.
Asked how wedded the Prime Minister was to the figure of 600 constituencies, the PMS said that it was an important part of the proposals.
Put that one point of contention was whether or not 600 was the right number, the PMS said that he wasn’t sure how much of a point of contention the precise number was. The Government’s proposal had always been to reduce the numbers. There had been a lot of debate about what the figure should be, but given the nature of the debates so far that did not necessarily mean it was a big issue of contention.
Asked if getting the Bill through before 5 May was more important than the principle of keeping the two parts of the Bill together, the PMS said that they were both part of the same Bill, they always had been and we had no intention of splitting them.
Asked if the Government would be prepared to wait until April next year to put the Bill through, the PMS said that he would not get into speculation.
Asked what the Government would give ground on, the PMS said that there was a debate ongoing and he would not speculate.
Put that the Prime Minister had said this morning that there was a long list of organisations within the NHS that supported his reforms, the PMS said that the point the Prime Minister had been making was that there was a debate going on, which was what you would expect when changes to the NHS had been announced. Certain people agreed with the proposals and others didn’t, but we were clear that our proposals were the right ones and the Prime Minister had been out and about this morning putting the case to people.
Asked if the Prime Minister accepted the concerns from some GPs that this might not be the best time to make changes, the PMS said that the Prime Minister would accept that there were people on both sides of the argument. We wouldn’t accept that it wasn’t the best time to implement these reforms, for the reasons the Prime Minister had set out this morning. We thought that the system of a health service that provided care free at the point of use was under threat if we didn’t deal with the problems we were facing. There was not the option of throwing money at this, and there were great pressures coming down the line.
Asked to explain the Prime Minister’s comments that if things didn’t change the NHS would no longer be free, the PMS said that in recent years we had seen a health service that was experiencing very large real-term increases in spending year on year. The long-term trends in health care were an aging population and the increasing cost of drugs and medical treatments, all of which would generate pressures in the future. We didn’t have the option of investing 5% real-term increases every year, year in, year out. Therefore if we wanted to maintain the current system we had to find a more efficient way of doing things.
Put that a council leader in Blackpool had said that the Government was letting down poorer areas, the PMS said that he did not know about the specific case of Blackpool, but made the point that we needed to tackle the deficit which required us to find money from central and local government. We believed that we had to challenge the presumption that reduced spending meant an automatic reduction in services.