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Cancer Services

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2011

We published our cancer strategy in January, which set out a range of actions to improve cancer outcomes and cancer services. We set out our plans to improve earlier diagnosis, access to screening, treatment and patient experience of care.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. He and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware of the concerns expressed by a number of GPs across the country, including in my constituency of Sleaford and North Hykeham, about the pace of reform in the NHS. What assurances can he give the House that GP consortia will continue to have access to the expertise they need to commission effective cancer services?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that question, because part of that pace is, of course, due to the fact that a substantial part of the country is now covered by pathfinder GP consortia, many of which are actively engaging with their colleagues in cancer networks and developing the expertise and experience that will be essential in taking forward their commissioning responsibilities. We have already made it clear that funding will be available in the coming year for the commissioning networks for cancer and that after that it will be a matter for the NHS commissioning board.

Cancer specialists at Peterborough City hospital tell me that they are prevented from prescribing drugs to needy patients, even after accreditation by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, as a result of the necessity for further approval by their local primary care trusts. Will the Minister undertake to tackle that bureaucratic delay, as it is having a significant impact on clinical outcomes in my constituency?

There are several aspects to my hon. Friend’s question. One is that we need to see much more commissioning for outcomes in cancer services. We must also ensure that full advantage is taken of the cancer drugs fund. I would be happy to look at any specific details of the case he has mentioned if he cares to write to me.

Does my hon. Friend agree that an important part of improving cancer care in this country is supporting the excellent palliative and respite care wards, such as Oakwell ward in Ilkeston community hospital in my constituency? It would be remiss of me, as the daughter of a nurse, not also to ask him to pay tribute to the nursing staff who work in that important area.

First, I will take the opportunity to pay that tribute to the excellent and hard work of clinicians in providing invaluable support to people affected by cancer. My hon. Friend is also right to refer to the importance of respite care for families. As part of the end-of-life strategy that the Government are taking forward, we are looking to improve palliative care services and inquiring into the possibility of a per-patient funding mechanism to cover the costs of these services.

Given the Minister’s commitment to improving patient experience, and the significant learnings from the national cancer patient survey, will he ensure that from now on the survey will be conducted annually?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that survey, which has produced invaluable data. More than 65,000 patients took part in the 2010 survey, and it is proving to be an invaluable tool in enabling trusts and commissioners to identify areas where there is scope for improvement locally. The cancer strategy that we published in January commits us to repeating such a patient experience survey, and we are exploring the options at the moment.

What is the Government’s policy in relation to those charities that provide indispensable services to cancer patients and their families? I have in mind, in particular, Macmillan and Marie Curie.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to describe the contribution of Macmillan, other cancer charities and, indeed, charities in the health sector more generally as indispensable. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Macmillan’s headquarters, where I did an online chat with a number of cancer sufferers and their families and saw the helplines and other support services that it provides. In our cancer strategy, we are very clear that such charities have an invaluable role to play.

Plymouth and neighbouring Cornwall, a former objective 1 area, suffer from enormous deprivation. Will the Minister therefore do all he can to ensure that those communities benefit from Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust’s much hoped-for CyberKnife technology, and that its benefits for cancer patients are felt not just in London, but more widely in other regions?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and she is absolutely right: that technology is invaluable. We want to ensure that it is available to the patients, and the tariff structures need to ensure that it is properly supported. She is right also that issues of equality in the service are key, and that is why we have maintained this Government’s commitment to supporting the NHS constitution and its commitment to promote equality in the system.

What assessments has the Minister made of the work of academics, such as Robert Putnam, who claim that one of the biggest influences on health outcomes and recovery is social cohesion within a neighbourhood, friendship groups and families? If the Minister has made an assessment, is he putting forward any policies that will help to expand that area?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Indeed, the importance of family and social networks is a key component of the vision for social care, which we set out in November. Importantly, social care can support those networks through support for family carers.

Queen Elizabeth hospital in my constituency provides excellent cancer care for the people not just of Birmingham, but of the west midlands. Following a freedom of information request by Unison, it has become clear that the hospital faces a 17%—or £22.5 million—cut in its funding from primary care trusts. How can the Minister say that cancer care will not be compromised if we have cuts on that scale?

First, there has been a 3% average increase in the funding that is available to PCTs, and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in answer to an earlier question, we are currently in that process of negotiation between hospital trusts and PCTs. It remains to be seen where the final figures will settle, but the money is in the system: the Government are committed to putting £10.7 billion extra in the system—something that the Labour party actually opposed.

As someone whose mother died of cancer, no one needs to tell me how important cancer is within the NHS, but it is noticeable that nine out of 13 questions asked by Conservative Members are about cancer; it seems to be the only part of the NHS which the Government are happy to talk about. But cancer cannot be taken in isolation from the rest of the NHS, when there is a massive reorganisation costing billions of pounds which only one in four GPs thinks will actually improve the service. How can that possibly involve doing the best for cancer patients?

Again, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is trying to re-run the Second Reading of, in this case, the Health and Social Care Bill, but in fact this Government are committed to seeing improvements across the board. That is why in the NHS outcomes framework we do not just talk about cancer, we identify other areas as well. If hon. Members table the questions, I am certainly happy to answer them.

The Secretary of State is fond of making unfavourable comparisons between European and UK health outcomes, but recent research shows that we are doing much better than the picture he portrays. Independent research has borne that out. Concerns have also been raised about the impact of his NHS reorganisation on cancer networks. Sarah Woolnough of Cancer Research UK says:

“One of our concerns is to ensure that we do not lose the expertise that we have been developing.”––[Official Report, Health and Social Care Public Bill Committee, 10 February 2011; c. 116, Q227.]

Under this Government, however, patients are already waiting longer than six weeks for diagnostic tests, many of which are for cancer. In fact, the numbers have doubled, and that is according to the Department’s own figures. Can I ask the Minister why?

On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, the first thing to say is that average waiting times have gone down, but beyond that, he is right to identify the need to achieve earlier diagnosis. That is one of the reasons performance in this country on cancer survival has not been as good in comparison with other European countries. That is why, in the outcomes strategy that we published in January, we made it clear that we would put in an extra £450 million over the next four years to fund the additional diagnostic procedures directly available to GPs so that they can make those tests available to their patients.