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Topical Questions

Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2009

Tomorrow the Government will publish the personal care at home Bill, which will benefit about 400,000 of the most vulnerable people in our society. On the same day, I will address a conference at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to raise awareness of the human health costs of inaction on climate change in the lead-up to the Copenhagen summit.

The people of Cumbria have been in all our thoughts over recent days. Today my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health spoke to Sue Page, chief executive of NHS Cumbria, and passed our thanks—the thanks of the whole House, I am sure—to the NHS staff and health professionals who have done so much to help local people to pull through during some very dark hours.

I am assured that emergency measures are in operation, including the use of Cockermouth community hospital as a general practice. In Workington, emergency measures are providing the full range of primary care services for people in the north of the town. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will visit the affected areas on Friday, and any further steps that are necessary will be taken.

Following concerns raised about the generic substitution of epilepsy medicine, what decisions has the Secretary of State made on whether such medicines should be excluded from the pharmaceutical price regulation scheme?

We intend to launch a 12-week consultation, which I hope will begin before Christmas. We therefore do not expect to be in a position to implement generic substitution until next year. However, we will wish to examine those issues as part of our wider consultation.

T5. Cans of super-strength lager carry the message “Enjoy responsibly” or “Please drink responsibly”, yet they contain four and a half units, which is more than the maximum recommended daily intake. Given that super-strength drinks are a major killer of vulnerable homeless people, would it not be more responsible for the Department to ban half-litre cans and to introduce a super-strength tax on beers and ciders containing more than, say, 6 per cent. of alcohol per volume, as recommended by the Thames Reach charity in my constituency? (300168)

I note the clear recommendation from that organisation in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Whatever the strength of the lager or other alcohol that people drink, they should understand how strong the drink is, how much they are drinking and the health risks involved. As my hon. Friend knows, tax is a matter for the Chancellor, but I will ensure that his comments are drawn to the Chancellor’s attention.

T2. According to the Jeanette Crizzle trust, of which I have the honour to be a trustee, fewer than 7 per cent. of secondary schools have taken part in the Department’s Give and Let Live organ donor education programme. What is the Secretary of State going to do to improve participation rates? (300165)

This is obviously a very important issue. There were reports in the news again today that not enough good organs were available for donation. I think that we can reach across the House and agree that the matter is crucially important. There is more that we can do to encourage people voluntarily to join the organ donation register. Progress has been made recently, but there can be no let-up. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will work with us, and will support all our efforts to boost awareness and the number of people joining the register.

Will my right hon. Friend take a personal interest in the two capital building projects, part of the £1.2 billion committed to Liverpool hospitals by the Government, the Liverpool university hospital and the Royal Liverpool children’s hospital, both of which are critical to the future delivery of hospital services to Liverpool?

I visited Liverpool yesterday and spoke to the chief executive and chair of the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust. The scheme has important health benefits for the city and region, but also has wider economic benefits. I can assure my right hon. Friend that I am paying close attention to both of the schemes that she mentions. Obviously there is pressure on capital budgets in the current climate but I recognise that these are important schemes.

T3. Is the Secretary of State aware that the future of the nation’s community dental practices has been put at serious risk because of guidance HTM 01-05? Will he agree to meet me and some dentists from my constituency so that they can explain what are clearly the unintended consequences of this guidance note? (300166)

There is a new village near Chorley called Buckshaw, and thousands of new homes are being developed in Chorley. My concern is that there is a drag factor between the population and the funding given to primary care trusts. What can we do to ensure that Chorley gets the right amount of funding for its primary care trust?

The NHS is constantly looking to ensure that we keep up to date with the way in which populations change in particular areas. PCTs must ensure that those data go to the Department so that the appropriate decisions on finances can be made.

T4. At a recent surgery, a constituent raised the problem of having an above-inflation increase at a private care home for his mother. It can be difficult to move people from those homes, so there is no competition with other businesses. What tools are at the Government’s disposal to deal with this and to regulate private care homes so that they cannot simply charge anything willy-nilly, knowing that people cannot access another care home? (300167)

The quality of care provided by private care homes is subject to regulatory control by the Care Quality Commission. They are independent and fee levels negotiated with local authorities are a matter for local authorities. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular issue on that, he should first discuss it with the local authority, but recent legislation means that an individual may be able to complain to the local authority ombudsman.

Further to the incident at Milton Keynes general hospital when a maternity patient demanded all-white staff, may I clarify to the Minister that I spoke directly to the chair of the hospital trust, who assured me that the patient’s request had not been acceded to and that she was treated by the duty team—a mixed team—for her caesarean? It would appear that the hospital did follow the NHS code in dealing with what was clearly a difficult and sensitive incident. I would be grateful if the Minister made sure that the accurate account of what happened is accentuated and that the hospital is congratulated.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important clarification. We would want to ensure that no unfair suggestion is made about NHS staff who do their best for all of her constituents at all times. There is of course no place for racism in the NHS, nor for any discriminatory behaviour towards NHS staff. On that there can never be a compromise, but we have heard the clarification given by my hon. Friend today.

T6. A Bethlem Royal hospital in-patient who had previously been convicted of murder absconded while on a shopping trip to West Wickham. As we would expect of one of the best trusts in the country, Bethlem reacted very professionally in giving reassurance to the public about its procedures for such circumstances, but would it be worth checking whether there are sufficient resources to support such activities for in-patients outside hospital? (300169)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this case to my attention. Whether a patient who has been detained under the Mental Health Acts can leave a hospital or unit under escort on a visit is always a clinical decision. The hon. Gentleman described the mental health trust involved in this case as one of the best in the country, and it is the responsibility of individual trusts to ensure that patients in their care do not abscond from secure services.

The hon. Gentleman referred to resources. As I said earlier, investment in mental health services has increased for nine consecutive years, and by some 50 per cent. or £2 billion in real terms. I understand that the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust will be carefully reviewing the incident the hon. Gentleman raised and that it will change policies and procedures for escorting patients if that is found to be necessary.

May I mention how proud my constituents are of the new Haywood hospital alongside the University Hospital of North Staffordshire NHS Trust’s new hospital? Will my hon. Friend the Minister take a very close look at investment and capital funding, however, and will he in particular look at the pace of change, as our area is still distant from the target, and at the importance of the market forces factor, so that we can make sure we get our full allocation of capital funding across north Staffordshire?

My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for Staffordshire and for ensuring that funding goes in the direction of her constituents. I will, of course, look at the issues she raises and see if I can be helpful.

T7. Paul Bason, a Lichfield-Staffordshire dentist who came to see me, raised, among other issues, the question of training. He says that after graduating in dentistry people have to have a year in vocational training, which is a good thing, but he asks whether there will be enough vocational trainers for the next batch of graduate dentists, and he thinks that perhaps there will not be. (300170)

We have to accept that there is competition for training places in some areas and that it is necessary for some new graduates to move out of their home area. Over the country as a whole, however, we make sufficient training places available for training new graduates.

The roll-out programme for ultrasound screening against aneurysms of the aortic artery is inadequate. How and when will this treatment, which will save up to 6,000 lives a year among men aged over 60, be available? It is desperately needed, especially in working-class areas where the greatest indices of health poverty exist, such as my area.

When rolling out any new technique within the national health service, we have to prepare the work force. This screening has been in progress. It has taken off better in some areas than in others, but we are looking at this and we are particularly concerned that we get it right because of the number of lives that will be saved.

T8. Constituents are being told that GP surgeries have to use up their initial allocation of 500 flu vaccines before they can order further supplies, even if the surgery knows there are a further 1,500 or so patients still to be vaccinated. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that surgeries have adequate and timely supplies of vaccines so that all vulnerable people can be vaccinated as soon as possible? (300171)

It is very important that surgeries have a ready supply of vaccines so they continue with the programme of vaccinating priority groups. We were aware that some surgeries may be coming to the end of the vaccination of priority groups at around this time, which is why we took the decision to extend the vaccination campaign to children aged between six months and five years. I take the point the hon. Lady raises very seriously. We want to ensure continuity of supply of vaccines to all surgeries around the country. We are confident that all GP surgeries have had a supply of vaccine, but we will continue to take a close look around the country to ensure that all surgeries have enough vaccine to be able to continue vaccinating in the priority groups.

Having five years ago been given exclusive rights to dip its corporate snout into the private finance initiative hospital trough, Laing O'Rourke must have industrial-strength chutzpah now to sue the Secretary of State for Health for abortive costs on that collapsed project. Does that not lay to rest, once and for all, the illusion that PFI transfers risk to the private sector?

PFI has produced a large number of hospitals and clinical facilities for the NHS; it has, in many areas, been an enormous success. What I would say is that sometimes difficulties arise and we must deal with them.

T9. Who takes responsibility in government for the fact that figures released today show that there were nearly 40,000 extra deaths last winter in this country because of cold? That is the highest figure for nearly 10 years. What will the Department of Health and other Departments do to have a proper insulation strategy for homes in Britain, rather than a piecemeal system that leaves many people dying when they would survive in other countries? (300172)

Obviously, the causes of winter deaths in excess are complex. The fact that last year’s winter was colder than average will explain some of the extra deaths, but I assure the House that the Government are working hard, and will continue to do so, to improve the uptake of grants, benefits and sources of advice, so that homes are more energy efficient and people have the help they need with heating and bills.

A few days ago, work began on Bolton One, which is a £30 million project delivering a new swimming pool, a walk-in health centre and teaching facilities for the university of Bolton. Will the Minister congratulate that university, Bolton council and Bolton primary care trust on this innovate new partnership?

T10. There are concerns about the future of the Feilding Palmer cottage hospital in Lutterworth, in my constituency. It is much valued by local people and there has been talk of it closing. People like to be treated close to their home, and I believe that such an approach is public policy for all parties. Therefore, will the Minister inform PCTs that they should make every effort to allow local people to decide where they are treated and that where people have a facility such as the Feilding Palmer cottage hospital they may be treated close to home, rather than 20 miles away in the city of Leicester? (300173)

What is also shared by the Front-Bench team of the hon. Gentleman’s party and our Front-Bench team is the view that reconfigurations—changes that are being made—should be clinically led and locally decided.

Today’s Western Morning News reported that Cornwall council is holding an urgent meeting to discuss the relocation of upper gastro-intestinal cancer services to Derriford. Devon county council has also requested that the Secretary of State re-examine the issue. Will he agree to a meeting to discuss the impact of this central policy on local access to services?

I am happy to agree to meet the hon. Lady and some of her parliamentary colleagues, but may I just say that we also need to accept that decisions have to be made in the health service about where facilities are placed? Such decisions are difficult and they are best arrived at locally.

What advice can the Minister give to a constituent whose eight-year-old son is suspected of having Asperger’s syndrome and who is having to wait three years before a test might confirm that? He could pay £1,000 for a test to be carried out privately, but that would not necessarily be accepted by the local education authority. Is this not a disgrace?

Decisions on the care of children with autism will come under the remit of the children and young people’s plan, the legislation for which was recently passed. It will make sure that disabled children and children with autism in an area are covered by a plan that will determine the level of need locally and the services to meet that need.