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Cross-border Patients

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2008

2. What discussions he has had with the First Minister about waiting times for first out-patient appointments for cross-border patients. (188099)

I regularly meet the First Minister, when we discuss a range of issues including NHS hospital waiting times for cross-border patients. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and delivering real improvement in the standard of services to all Welsh patients.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but official Government figures show that while 82 English patients are waiting more than 13 weeks for their first out-patient appointment, the figure for Wales is 47,698, so there does not seem to have been a lot of improvement. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is not so much a health postcode lottery, but deliberate Government discrimination against the people of Wales?

No, I cannot agree with that. The hon. Gentleman is aware that nearly £6 billion has been spent on the health service in Wales. However, he raises an important point about cross-border health arrangements. I was surprised to learn that, in 2006, more than 19,000 patients resident in England were registered with a general practitioner in Wales, while nearly 14,000 patients resident in Wales were registered with a GP in England. Whether we are dealing with primary care or waiting times, there must be an arrangement between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Health, probably an improved protocol on cross-border issues, to deal with any discrepancies. It is fair to say that waiting times in Wales have dropped dramatically over the past year or so and that there are far fewer differences between England and Wales than there were in the past.

I respect the right of the Welsh Assembly Government to determine their priorities in health. We welcome the fact that a third of the patients of the Countess of Chester, which serves my constituency, come to that first-class hospital from Wales. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that quick progress is made on ensuring that there is fair funding for the Countess of Chester hospital?

Yes, I will. My hon. Friend and I discussed this issue only a couple of weeks ago. There are particular problems with dealing with cross-border issues in the north-east of Wales and the north-west of England, and discussions are ongoing about how to deal with them. Of course, the national health service is genuinely national to the United Kingdom and we should not allow cross-border issues to deflect from that basic principle. When the new protocol is agreed, I am sure that it will cover my hon. Friend’s points.

On behalf of Plaid Cymru, may I welcome the Secretary of State to his post?

Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the difficulties with this debate on health provision is that it is bedevilled by both a lack of statistics and conveniently quoted statistics? Will he therefore cause the publication of a set of statistics on the number of Welsh people being treated in England, the percentage of Welsh people being treated in England, waiting times, and costs to local health boards, so that the debate can be properly informed and transparent?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He is absolutely right that statistics should be available so that we can compare notes on the separate systems in Wales and England. I can give him some statistics. As I said, there are just under 20,000 English patients registered in Wales and 14,000 Welsh patients registered in England. However, we need the figures for hospitals, too. When the statistics are compiled, they will be a useful tool to ensure that there is a proper protocol to deal with the issue. I know that the hon. Gentleman, as a north Wales Member, is especially interested in the matter.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Welsh patients waiting for treatment in England are part of the overall waiting list in Wales? Does he also agree that today’s figures show a dramatic decrease in the number of Welsh patients waiting for out-patient appointments and in in-patient waiting times? Will he join me in congratulating all the health workers involved in that improvement?

I certainly will agree with my hon. Friend. A great deal of work has been done in the past couple of years to improve waiting times for people in Wales. Her point about today’s figures is very telling. All Members who represent Wales will appreciate that we do not get the number of letters about waiting times that we used to. There is no question but that the situation is better than it used to be, although that is not to say that we can become complacent.

I too welcome the Secretary of State to his post. He has given distinguished service to Wales and to UK politics.

Many patients in north Wales are worried that they will not have access to neurological services in Walton. My constituent, Mr. Narborough, has to go to Wrexham for artificial limb services, rather than Hereford; young Ieuan Baynhan has to go all the way to Morriston for plastic surgery; and Owen Williams cannot get treatment for ankylosing spondylitis in Bath. Will the Secretary of State emphasise to his colleagues in the Assembly and in Westminster how important cross-border services are, and will he ensure that we bring common sense to bear on the situation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I agree with him that there is a difficulty. Many of his constituents, for example, go to Neville Hall hospital in Monmouthshire, and some cross the border into Shrewsbury and elsewhere. However, we have to put the distances into perspective: a seriously ill person with a rather specialist complaint will inevitably, I suspect, have to travel some distance for treatment. Obviously, the patient him or herself will want the best treatment, but the nearer it is to home, the better. I shall take his concerns up with the Welsh Health Minister.

I am sure that the Secretary of State has seen this month’s report from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, which highlights the difficulty many patients have in accessing services in England. Indeed, one local Welsh health board is unable to commission services at the specialist centre in Oswestry because of funding constraints. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Welsh patients, who, after all, pay their taxes at precisely the same rates as English patients, are entitled to a service of at least equal quality? Does he not share my regret that they are clearly not getting it?

I have seen that report. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government will consider its recommendations and that Edwina Hart will respond shortly. However, I agree with the general thrust of his question on muscular dystrophy services.