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When the Opposition junior health spokesman did his listening thing in south London, Lyn Whitfield - and not a great many others - were there

It is what opposition parties do. When their policies are rejected by the voters, they go out and listen to 'real people' to find out what they would like to hear.

Conservative leader William Hague launched his 'Listening to Britain' campaign last year, setting up meetings around the country to take the pulse of the nation.

Last week it was Philip Hammond's turn to listen to Britain. Or, at least, the bit of Britain living in Camberwell that wanted to sit in a church hall on a freezing Thursday night, talking to the Opposition's junior health spokesman.

In other words, a dozen people.

Linda Bailey, a Bexley councillor who told HSJ that she wanted an 'opportunity to have an input on national policy', made her mark with a question on waiting lists.

'I am a bit worried about whether money is being spent on waiting lists that could go on other things,' she said.

Conservative Medical Society chair Howard Freeman, who led the debate while Mr Hammond did his listening thing, said this was a 'a real issue'.

Paul Vinnell, news editor of the Southwark News and chair of the meeting, asked why waiting lists were longer in some areas than others.

'That is a very good question,' said Mr Freeman, blaming 'the postcode NHS' as if the previous Conservative government had never heard of it.

Mr Vinnell also wondered if the audience was concerned about the end of GP fundholding.

To mutters of 'yes, yes', Mr Freeman explained that the end of fundholding and the advent of primary care groups would change the doctor-patient relationship.

A lay member would have to try to represent the public on a PCG 'involving 50 GPs and up to 250,000 people', he said. And that would be 'very different from you coming to me to discuss something' with funding implications.

Mrs Bailey felt people would not be happy about their GP 'having to go to a committee'.

But the real concerns of the meeting lay elsewhere. The audience felt strongly that people should turn up for GP and hospital appointments.

A GP who worked 'in a deprived area (where) it is very difficult to keep these people in line' won widespread support for his suggestion that patients should have to put down a deposit on an appointment. It would be refunded if they turned up.

Audience members were also broadly supportive of prescription charges and 'small' charges for visits to GPs. As one pensioner put it, 'anything that is free is not valued'.

Several went further and argued that people had a 'moral duty' to pay for their own care if they could afford it.

And there was considerable debate about the rights and wrongs of giving 'people going on African holidays' free injections, and giving 'bogus asylum seekers' the right to use the NHS. A younger Conservative Party member, Joseph McKenna, argued that it would be 'morally repugnant' to 'send people away again to die'.

At least one middle-aged woman was unsure. 'I am not a hard-hearted person,' she said. 'But we have to be realistic and ask where the money is going to come from.'

Summing up, Mr Hammond trod carefully, claiming that there were 'gangs of criminals' bringing false asylum seekers to Britain to 'get very expensive care'.

But he suggested it might make more sense to invest in preventive medicine in countries 'like Albania' than to 'open the gates to the few people who get here'.

He 'noted' other comments, arguing that PCGs were an 'artificial construct' that would not command the loyalty of the 'natural unit' of the GP practice, which Conservative thinking should focus on.

He also said he had been 'impressed' by European models for funding healthcare through compulsory, state-run insurance schemes.

'The problem with holding the debate in this country, is that we only know the US model, because we watch ER, quite frankly,' he said.

'We do not know about the systems in France or Germany, or how they are funded.'

The audience looked slightly baffled. But Mr Hammond assured them that 'meetings like this are very valuable' and made an important contribution to the debate.