asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many letters he has now received from the general public on the proposal by the North East Thames regional health authority to close the radiotherapy unit at Southend general hospital; and if he will make a statement.
We have received 15 letters which have been referred by hon. Members, together with about 1,100 letters direct from members of the public. If Ministers are required to make a decision on the proposal, we shall take into account all the representations that have been received.
Does this flood of letters not show the serious concern that a regional health authority, which claims to be short of money, is planning to spend £4 million on closing a modern and efficient unit and to build an entirely new one 30 miles away, when there is no guarantee that it will attract as many patients as the Southend unit? Will my hon. Friend seek to remove the damaging uncertainty among staff and patients by trying to persuade the authority to abandon this silly empire building?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the proposals involve an increase in expenditure, but not a cut in services. We expect that we shall receive rather more representations in the near future, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has agreed to receive a petition that bears more than 90,000 signatures.
Is the Minister aware that the regional health authority's plan to close the unit at Southend will mean many of my constituents, including those who are suffering and ill, having to travel much longer and more difficult journeys to receive treatment? On that ground, will the hon. Lady discourage the authority from putting into effect the absurd plan of closing the much appreciated radiotherapy unit at Southend?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the proposal involves only the radiotherapy unit. Other forms of cancer diagnosis and treatment will continue as at present and I have no doubt that they will continue to command the confidence of local people. The problem is how best to organise high-tech services, which are expensive and which need to be concentrated if we are to provide a good service.
Without commenting on the case that is being made by Southend, and before my hon. Friend becomes over-impressed by the public relations campaign and the petition to which she has referred, will she take note that other of her hon. Friends who represent Essex constituencies applaud the regional health authority's decision to construct a pupose-built cancer unit at the Harold Wood hospital? Will she take on board the fact that on this occasion, if on no other, the voice of Southend is not necessarily the voice of Essex?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I am sure speaks very much for his constituents, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). His comments serve to demonstrate the heat that is in this kitchen.
I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates that she will require the judgment and wisdom of Solomon to resolve this problem. Those of my constituents who are cancer patients presently travel to north Middlesex, to a hospital that is under threat of closure. The choice appears to be between Harold Wood and Southend. My concern, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle), is that our constituents who are suffering from cancer will have to travel an inordinate distance—a journey that will be uncomfortable and unpleasant—to attend the Southend unit. We find that intolerable.
My hon. Friend will remember that during the debate on cancer on 13 February I said that we would attempt to get a more up-to-date view on the extent to which stress and travelling problems have an effect on the treatment of patients who are suffering from cancer, and that commitment stands.
When will Ministers recognise that instead of dealing with each piecemeal proposition from each of the four Thames regions for the reorganisation of cancer treatment it would be better if Ministers got the four regions together, knocked their heads together and got them to produce a comprehensive plan for the treatment of cancer covering the arrangements in an area containing 13,25 million people?
The hon. Gentleman is keen on telling local health authorities what to do, and we have made careful note of his views on that sort of centralisation. However, it is no good doing all that unless the money is available—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] I recall that whereas the North East Thames regional health authority is now receiving a total of over £1 billion in revenue, under the Labour Government, supported by the hon. Gentleman, the total was only £407 million, barely 40 per cent. of what it now receives. The result is that we can now seriously discuss improving the quality of cancer therapy for all the patients concerned in the region, whereas under the hon. Gentleman's Government they did not have a chance.
My hon. Friend will know that my constituency is in the Southend health authority area. She will also know that the North East Thames regional health authority proposes to reduce its number of cancer treatment units from nine to six. Is she aware that the population of south-east Essex is one quarter of the population of the North East Thames regional health authority? Therefore, is it not eminently reasonable that at least one cancer treatment unit should be in south-east Essex?
My hon. Friend adds some sensible comments to the discussion. If the community health councils in the neighbourhood continue to object to the regional health authority's proposals, those proposals will come to Ministers for a decision. We do not expect that to happen before the end of this year and we will take into account all the representations made to us.