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Cancer Services

Volume 497: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2009

4. What is his most recent assessment of the level of provision of cancer services in England; and if he will make a statement. (292231)

The first annual report on the Cancer Reform Strategy, published in December 2008, is the most recent assessment of cancer service provision in England. The report showed that good progress is being made against the objectives of the strategy to improve cancer services further across England by 2012.

When considering that report, did the Minister examine the research conducted by Professor Karol Sikora at the university of Buckingham medical school? It shows that in NHS centres where complementary services are offered, 70 per cent. of women and 40 per cent. of men take them up, and that they are of great help with chemotherapy. However, there is a real problem. There is not enough knowledge about which therapies are working when they are used together. If I wrote to the Minister, would he please consider funding a little extra research?

I look forward to receiving the hon. Gentleman’s correspondence. I do not think that any Member has done more to champion the cause of complementary and alternative medicine across the national health service. As he will know, as a result of his efforts and those of others, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has included the role of complementary and alternative medicine in its service configuration guidance on supportive and palliative care for cancer patients—which is due to be implemented fully by December this year. Of course I would welcome a further letter from him, particularly one containing the views of such an eminent clinician as Karol Sikora.

In September, I had a breast cancer scare. Within five working days I was in the hospital and being screened—and everything was fine. I want the House to know that that was not because I am a Member of Parliament: when the staff contacted me by phone, they called me Mr. Taylor. I had to correct that quickly!

I raise the matter here today because I received excellent service from the University Hospital of North Tees; the breast cancer unit was excellent. My question to the Secretary of State is quite clear. When is it expected that all cancer services will be resourced to the same extent, so that it will be possible for everyone, within five working days, either to have their minds put at rest or to begin their treatment?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for her question, and I will relay what she has said to the NHS so that it will get her name right in future. It is important that she has shared her experience with the House, because it illustrates how far the NHS has travelled. It is a sad fact that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in England. Some 38,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2006. I have seen the devastating effects of breast cancer in my own family, and I know only too well how quickly it can spread if it is not picked up early.

As my hon. Friend knows, we are extending the two-week guarantee to all suspected cases of breast cancer. She will have heard recently that we also want to extend GPs’ access to tests, so that although not every case may qualify for the urgent referral pathway, cases that do not can nevertheless be checked out by GPs. She is absolutely right: there can be no complacency. We will go still further to ensure that we give everyone in the country the best possible chance of surviving breast cancer.

The Secretary of State will recall that the Cancer Reform Strategy says:

“Sufficient finance will be made available to the NHS as part of their general capital allocations to fund investment in new cancer equipment.”

That was two years ago. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister said that hospital building projects should have their resources taken away to fund new cancer equipment. Clearly that has not happened—or can the Secretary of State explain what additional diagnostic equipment is going to be paid for?

I do not think that it is possible for the shadow Secretary of State for Health to accuse the Government of not investing in cancer services. This Government made the change on day one of taking office, and we have invested in cancer services throughout our period in office. The facts are as follows. Cancer mortality among under-75s fell by almost 18 per cent. between 1996 and 2006. That is a record of which we are very proud. However, we must continue to invest in the equipment and capacity to give people as rapid access to tests as possible. As I said earlier, we want to give GPs the ability to refer people for non-obstetric ultrasound, for flexible sigmoidoscopy and other such tests, so that we can give people ready access to tests in the community, help to get early diagnosis and, in the vast majority of cases, put their minds at rest.

I regret that I did not really get an answer to my question. Since the Secretary of State wants to talk about cancer mortality, will he explain why, in the decade after Labour came to office, the gap in cancer mortality between this country and the European average widened? On the other point that he made, surely he must know that the issue in the NHS now is not primarily about the capital resources for additional diagnostics, but the staffing to support them. Diagnostic equipment could be better used if there were more radiographers and sonographers.

I can answer the hon. Gentleman on both points. As I said, cancer mortality fell over the decade in question. Cancer survival rates have been steadily improving. We accept that there is more to be done to close the gap between us and comparable countries, but that is precisely why I have taken steps on early diagnosis, which is the new frontier in taking on the battle against cancer.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the work force. The cancer work force has increased considerably in that period. We have been investing not just in equipment, but in people. He mentioned radiographers. There were some 12,500 radiographers in 2000. In 2006 there were 14,500, and the plan is to have 17,500 by 2012. That is a genuine commitment to invest in the work force and the equipment that gives people in this country the best possible chance of surviving cancer. He cannot look me in the eye and say that his party in government did the same thing.

Order. I appeal to the Secretary of State and the other Ministers on the Treasury Bench: we must have shorter answers. We need to make progress.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he cannot say often enough that the real reason why we have been able to reduce the problems with cancer and many other illnesses, particularly heart disease, is the money that we invested in 2001 and the 1 per cent. increase in national insurance contributions, every penny of which went straight to the NHS? That had never been done before in any Budget. Conservative Members walked into the No Lobby and voted against that money. As someone who has had cancer and open-heart surgery, I cannot thank the NHS enough. I thank my colleagues for walking through the Aye Lobby and providing the extra money to find the people to do the job.

I could not have put it better. The Conservatives had the nerve to stand up in Manchester last week and proclaim themselves the party of the NHS. But as my hon. Friend rightly says, a few years before that they walked though the No Lobby to vote against the money that Wanless said was crucial to put our NHS back on its feet. That money has paid for the figures that I have been reading out in the House this afternoon.

In 2007, the National Radiotherapy Advisory Group highlighted the 63 per cent. gap between current activity levels and optimal treatment levels. That position will worsen as cancer increases in an ageing population. The Secretary of State has mentioned the projected staff increases, but what will he do about the equipment which, although it was replaced under this Government, is coming to the end of its useful life? What plans are there to ensure that the equipment and staff are there in the future?

The hon. Lady is right to say that this is not a case of one or the other: we need both together. As well as radiographers, some 1,800 extra cancer consultants have joined the NHS since 1997. We need both, and I recognise that we have to invest in the most up-to-date equipment to give people the very best cancer care. That is our commitment, and that is what we are doing by reprioritising our spending plans to get the funding into that equipment, switching away from the hospital-building programme.