POLITICS

I sometimes hesitate to ring MPs late on a Sunday night in case they're doing something frightfully important. 'I hope I haven't interrupted you doing something frightfully important, ' I said to Steve Webb, Lib Dem MP for Northavon since 1997 and a great expert on tax and poverty. 'I was watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire, ' he replied.

What with him being a professor of social studies at Bath before the election, I expect it was to do with his work. Mr Webb, who is a youthful 44, has just been appointed by Charlie Kennedy (I must stop calling him Charlie, now he's leader) to chair a new working party on poverty and social inclusion. Mr Kennedy believes Labour is vulnerable on poverty because it thinks poorer voters have nowhere else to go. It also overlooks the rural poor.

He's right, but this was not why I rang Steve Webb.

Midweek, he had staged a Commons adjournment debate on orthopaedic waiting times in Avon health authority, in particular at North Bristol trust. I have read, or listened to, hundreds of such debates over the years, but the case of his constituent, Mrs Aze, moved me. To my surprise, Mr Webb said he'd felt the same way.

Briefly, the old lady, almost 70, had been told how long she would have to wait to see a consultant 'to prevent me from becoming a cripple'. Not the 26 weeks of ministerial intention. Not the 78 weeks which another constituent had been promised. Nor even the 104 weeks which was normal before the trust funded a fifth orthopaedic surgeon. No, it was 125 weeks.

No wonder Mrs Aze was angry. 'This sort of thing has been going on since I was first elected. People see ministers on TV talking about cutting waiting lists and wave letters under my nose, saying, 'Politicians just don't understand what it's like, '' Mr Webb told me.

In this case the MP's intervention seemed to have helped. Mrs Aze was moved from one list to another and will see the new consultant in just 25 weeks - that's Easter 2000. What our Chris Tarrant fan wanted to know was, if Alan Milburn is prioritising cancer and cardiac care, does that mean other ailments lose out?

'That's stupid, ' interjected health minister John Denham. But it isn't.

Having seen letters shunted round the system from MP to minister, to trust to Avon HA, Mr Webb wanted the buck to stop at Minister Denham. Did it? Yes and no. Predictably, he rattled off all sorts of statistics to show how 'the hard work of staff in Avon' had increased performance in all sorts of ways. Booked admission schemes, rapid access for cancer patients, that extra£21bn - he rattled them all off.

Excellent, excellent. But what about orthopaedics in North Bristol trust? 'There is no doubt that Avon's performance in certain specialties is worse than that of the NHS as a whole, ' he conceded, including orthopaedics where the wait is longest. Some£5m had been invested over five years to make it better, he said.

In response, Mr Webb tells me: 'The inspectors have been in several times and can't find a flaw. The trust is not obviously screwing up, but the health authority is underfunded.'

A story for our time, then. Useful incremental progress in all sorts of ways, but not so that enough patients yet feel that the famous Dobson supertanker has really turned. As DoH officials are all too aware, the NHS is a 'high-trust, low-choice' service (the opposite of the US), and if trust is lost it is hard to recover.

Coincidentally, Mr Webb's debate was followed by another, initiated by another Class of '97 MP, Labour's Bob Blizzard, who took Waveney on a high 14.4 per cent swing in 1997. He sounded both horrified and bewildered that the 1999 report of Suffolk's public health director confirms that people living in the Kirkley and Harbour wards of Lowestoft have up to an 80 per cent greater chance of dying before the age of 75 than the Suffolk average.

'The commonly held view (among doctors) is that the gap has got worse rather than better' since 1997, the MP said. Health inequality was a hot Dobson issue, and Tessa Jowell's successor, Yvette Cooper, sounds fiercely concerned to do right. Lots of admirable local initiatives, partnerships, even cash. And yet. . . has Iron Gordon Brown left it too late?