I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s continued interest in this issue over some time. I can tell him that my right hon. Friend and I regularly meet the First Minister and the Minister for Health and Social Services to discuss a range of issues, including hospital waiting times, for cross-border patients. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and are consistently delivering real improvements in the standard of health care for all patients.
Prime Minister Blair told us on 30 November that nobody was waiting more than six months for an NHS in-patient operation. Today, 2,788 Welsh patients and 239 cross-border patients are waiting more than six months. Why have things deteriorated so much under the current Prime Minister?
Actually, I can correct the hon. Gentleman slightly—there is improvement, not deterioration. The latest figures, for February 2008, show that in the last year alone the number of Welsh patients waiting for in-patient or day-case treatment in an English hospital has dropped by more than 22 per cent. and that the number of Welsh patients waiting for up to 36 weeks for an out-patient appointment in an English hospital has dropped by nearly 20 per cent. We appreciate that there is more work to do, but we are heading in the right direction.
On Monday, the Welsh Affairs Committee visited the Walton centre and Alder Hey in Liverpool as part of our ongoing inquiry into cross-border health services. Those two establishments are centres of excellence and an integral part of the national health service for the people of north Wales. We were told that for all serious illnesses patients were treated equally whichever side of the border they resided on. Does the Minister agree that to meet the expectations of the future we need to strengthen the links between general hospitals in north Wales and those centres of excellence to ensure that we get the best patient care, based on clinical need, not geography?
My hon. Friend and other colleagues in north Wales have made strong representations on this issue. My right hon. Friend and I are convinced that the outcome of the ongoing review, which I understand will report in July this year, should arrive at a sensible and measured approach that delivers for patients in north Wales, and throughout Wales and the region. That is what we are looking for. I am assured that no decision has yet been made on the future of neurosurgery, but we do listen, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, too, makes those representations directly to Welsh Assembly Government Ministers.
But will the Minister join me in condemning those who would worry, perplex and even frighten sick people in Wales with their exaggerated and sometimes unfounded allegations about problems with cross-border services—not because of concern for the health of our people, but as a proxy for their opposition to devolution?
All people in this House, and elsewhere, would want to ensure that decisions on health care are reached democratically and in the interests of the patient, and that is best done in a mood of calm, considered, deliberate attention to detail. That is how we would want things to proceed. If there is scaremongering, we would all, in this House and elsewhere, urge people to desist from that and look at the situation rationally.
I do indeed agree. My hon. Friend makes a point about the role of Welsh MPs and their power to represent their constituents in this place in all matters. People will still come through to all MPs’ advice surgeries to raise these issues. We have democratically elected institutions both here and in the National Assembly for Wales, and it is important that the voices are heard in both places.
My constituents are often told that because they live in Wales, they have to wait longer than the English patients of Shropshire hospitals. It is not hard to imagine the frustration and suffering that that causes my constituents. What can the Minister do to ensure that Montgomeryshire folk with health problems are not made to feel like second-class citizens when they go to those hospitals? How can he ensure that we get parity of treatment across the border between Montgomeryshire and England?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a strong supporter of devolution in principle, and one of the outcomes of devolution is that different approaches to primary, secondary and acute care will be adopted. In this House and elsewhere, we all want to see the best treatment for all our patients, and we are heading in the right direction. I hear the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, however, and other Members have expressed them as well. We want waiting times to come down, but we also want to see the massive investment that Labour has put into health, in primary care and elsewhere, paying dividends, and that process is working under this Government.
As of yesterday, the combined target waiting time for out-patient and in-patient treatment in England has been reduced to 18 weeks, whereas in Wales the equivalent target is 44 weeks. Given that the Assembly Government spend more on health than England, one might have thought that the reverse would be the case. Could the Minister explain why the Assembly Government have apparently made a policy decision to require Welsh patients to wait more than twice as long for treatment as English patients?
The policy decision of the Welsh Assembly Government is to invest in health care, including waiting times, which are falling. As of January 2008, only three patients were waiting more than 36 weeks for in-patient or day-case treatment, compared with 3,485 in January 2007. We are not complacent, and we know that we have to go further, but the difference between 3,400 patients waiting and three waiting is evidence that we are going in the right direction.