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Topical Questions

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2012

I remind Members on both sides of the House—Back and Front Benchers alike—that topical questions and answers must be brief.

My responsibility is to lead the NHS in delivering improved outcomes in England; to lead a public health service that improves the health of the nation and reduces health inequalities; and to lead the reform of adult social care to support and protect vulnerable people.

If the argument is that doctors are the best people to commission health and manage finances, why not listen to doctors themselves, who universally reject the Government’s plans? Why not listen to the royal colleges and patients groups and drop the Bill?

The hon. Gentleman just does not know what is happening around the country. All over the country doctors taking clinical leadership in foundation trusts and NHS trusts, and GPs and their nursing and medical colleagues taking responsibility in the new clinical commissioning groups, are demonstrating that they can improve the quality of care for the patients they serve. They hear what is said by the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues and think they are completely out of touch with the world in which they live.

T5. I appreciate that the Government have allocated additional funding for social care, but what more will and can they do in the short term not only to address the current crisis in funding and ensure that funding is used creatively and efficiently locally, but to cater for those with lower-level needs through preventive measures and early intervention? (95342)

My hon. Friend is right about the need to invest in early intervention and prevention. In addition to the £7.2 billion that we will invest this Parliament, this January we announced an extra £120 million for the remainder of the year to support care services. Furthermore, we are funding, jointly with the Local Government Association, work to support councils in delivering improved productivity and sharing best practice to ensure that they deliver improvements to services, and not just cuts.

The Secretary of State said that he would listen to doctors and nurses but yesterday shut the door of No. 10 Downing street in their faces. But now things take a sinister turn. Let me quote from a letter from an NHS director received last week by a respected clinician of many years’ standing:

“I understand that you are a signatory to a letter which highlights your personal concerns about the Health Bill. It is inappropriate for individuals to raise their personal concerns about the proposed Government reforms. You are therefore required to attend a meeting with the Chief Executive to explain and account for the actions you have recently taken.”

Will he confirm that it is now his policy to threaten NHS staff with disciplinary action if they speak out against his reorganisation?

No, it is not my policy. I do not know the letter to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, and if he had shown it to me beforehand I could have investigated it. Yesterday, I and the Prime Minister met doctors and medical professionals and they discussed precisely how to improve services for patients. I went to Queen’s hospital in Romford and met nurses, midwives and doctors working to make the trust one in which their public can have confidence and, in due course, a foundation trust. All these things—foundation trusts, clinical commissioning, patient choice—used to be things that he believed in. They are now things that we are achieving but which he has rejected.

It is, it would seem, the Secretary of State’s new top-down bullying policy, and it is happening right across the NHS. How does he reconcile that with what he used to say about whistleblowing? I remind him of what he once said:

“The first lines of defence against bad practice are the doctors and nurses”,

who

“have a responsibility to their patients to raise concerns if they see risks to patient safety. And when they do, they should be reassured that the Government stands full square behind them.”

Full square behind them so that he can plunge the knife straight into their backs! The truth about his mismanagement of the NHS is coming out: staff bullied into silence, professionals frozen out, crucial information in the risk register—

T6. Dentists in Ipswich are increasingly concerned about having to put right work done by dentists from outside the UK who have received temporary registration from the General Dental Council, causing yet more cost to the NHS and trouble for those receiving care. How will Ministers measure the quality of those receiving temporary registration? (95343)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue that we are discussing with the GDC. The council’s work on revalidation will ensure that the work of those supervising foreign dentists and, where appropriate, foreign dentists themselves is properly covered.

T2. Given that managed clinical networks for neuromuscular conditions can help to reduce the number of unplanned hospital admissions for patients with life-shortening illnesses and save the NHS money, will the Secretary of State commit to establishing such networks with funding from the NHS Commissioning Board? (95338)

As we have set out clearly, we want to promote clinical networks more widely, not just in relation to cancer and stroke, as has been the case in the past. I shall write to the hon. Lady about whether it would be appropriate for neuromuscular conditions and whether it is embraced in any plans that the NHS Commissioning Board and commissioning groups have in place already.

T7. Northamptonshire residents are rightly concerned that in the county in the last four months of 2011 the East Midlands ambulance service reached fewer than 69% of category A calls within eight minutes. The target is 75%. What hope can my right hon. Friend offer to local residents that this poor performance will rapidly improve? (95344)

I hope that I can give some reassurance to my hon. Friend by telling him that East Midlands ambulance service is working with commissioners, hospital trusts, community health services and social care services in taking measures to address its response time performance. NHS Milton Keynes and NHS Northamptonshire have received £1.7 million in additional funding, and NHS Midlands and East advices me that some of that has been used to fund further measures to help improve EMAS response times, including through the provision of additional ambulance crews and the deployment of hospital-ambulance liaison officers in each accident and emergency department to improve handover and turnaround times.

T3. The Secretary of State says he acts on advice. May I advise him to read the horrendous report from Mencap that details the death of 74 people with learning disabilities due to a lack of basic care and a lack of understanding of the health care needs of people with learning disabilities? Will he follow the advice of Mencap and ensure that the undergraduate and postgraduate training of doctors and nurses includes intensive training in the needs of people with learning disabilities, so that there will be no further unnecessary deaths of people with learning disabilities due to neglect in NHS hospitals? (95340)

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, and I am glad to say that I had a useful meeting with Mark Goldring of Mencap. I have read his report and, in response to what the hon. Lady has said, I would be glad to write to her and put a copy in the Library.

T8. Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am that the employment tribunal of the former United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust chief executive Gary Walker ended in secrecy? Does he agree that the NHS should stop using public money to impose gagging orders to suppress information that is not only in the public interest, but that impacts on patient safety? (95345)

My hon. Friend will know that it is the policy of the NHS not to use compensation agreements in order to suppress information that is in the public interest, and I will certainly write to him about the case that he raises.

T4. Before the election, the Conservative party and the then shadow Health Secretary received substantial donations from the chairman of the private health company Care UK and his wife. Does he agree with the then Liberal Democrat health spokesman, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—who has now been promoted to Minister—when he said:“This is a staggering conflict of interest which completely undermines the Tories’ claim that the NHS would be safe in their hands”? (95341)

If not abuse, then smear. I never received any money personally from the chief executive of Care UK. The Conservative party solicited and received donations that were declared in the normal way. They had no influence, and we would never permit any such influence over our party’s policies.

T9. I recently met Norwich and District Carers Forum to hear about the work that it is undertaking, together with GP surgeries in Norfolk, to help identify carers in the county. What recent steps have Ministers taken to help identify and support carers in Norwich and elsewhere? (95346)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, and I know that a lot of work is being done across the county of Norfolk between the NHS and social care. Nationally, the Government are working with the Royal College of General Practitioners, Carers UK, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and Crossroads Care to recruit GP carers champions and volunteer carers ambassadors, and make them aware of the need not just to identify carers, but to ensure that they take the necessary action to assess and provide appropriate support, so that carers get a break from their caring responsibilities and have the opportunity both to stay in work, if that is what they want to do, and to have a life, not just a caring responsibility.

If I was concerned only with the politics of the situation, I would be urging the Secretary of State to carry on with the Health and Social Care Bill, in view of the political fallout. However, does he realise that the strength of opposition throughout country—certainly among the medical profession, as well as the public—is based on the fact that they believe that the national health service will be seriously undermined if the measure goes through? Why is he not willing to listen to the voices of people who are so concerned that the institution—which we all believe is so necessary—will be threatened and damaged as a result of his measure?

The hon. Gentleman should go back to last year and recall that not only did we consult on the White Paper, but—following the listening exercise last year with dozens of independent health professionals, who conducted hundreds of meetings with thousands of professionals across the service, who made a substantial series of recommendations, and with the Future Forum clear that the principles of the Bill were supported, just as many organisations continue to say that they support them—we took on board and accepted those recommendations. That is why the Bill, which is in another place, was supported by a majority in this House and was supported by a majority there.

There has been much talk today about improving outcomes of patient care—when we move beyond the politics—so will the Secretary of State commend the excellent hyper-acute stroke service that he saw with me in Winchester just a few weeks ago? As he knows, the service rightly enjoys the support of the emerging care commissioning group. Indeed, he also met those in the group and saw how positive they are about the changes.

Yes, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the invitation that he extended to me to visit Winchester, which is now forming part of the Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and looking to do so very successfully. I share with him the optimism derived from a meeting with the members of the West Hampshire clinical commissioning group. They, like others across the country, are demonstrating how they will use the responsibilities that they will be given to improve care for patients.

As the House will know, I have been a regular customer of the NHS over the last 12 years, and it hurts me to think of what is happening, after all the wonderful treatment that I had for cancer, as well as a bypass and a hip replacement. I am still here to tell the story because of the treatment by those nurses and doctors. Please stop this savage attack on the NHS, and drop this dreadful Bill.

The hon. Gentleman clearly has no idea of what is actually in the Bill or the modernisation process. It is only about simple things. It is about giving patients information and choice. It is about empowering doctors and nurses and health professionals, and it is about strengthening the ability of the NHS to improve care in the future. That is all that it is about, and it cuts the cost of bureaucracy in so doing. It will enable us and the NHS to do the things that his Government supported in the past—he might not have supported them, but his friends did—including commissioning by clinicians, patient choice and using the best qualified provider. Those are the things that his Government used to believe in, and they are the things that we are doing. There is no privatisation, no charging and no break-up of the NHS. There is only supporting the NHS.

Ministers will be aware of the Centre for Mental Health’s report last week, which showed that physical health outcomes are linked to mental health outcomes, and that both need to be treated at the same time. Can the Minister update the House on the Department’s progress on implementing its mental health strategy?

I can indeed. We will shortly be publishing a more detailed implementation plan showing the role that the NHS Commissioning Board, the clinical commissioning groups and others will play, alongside the voluntary sector, in delivering the strategy. More importantly, we are also doing work on long-term conditions that will begin, for the first time, to join up the way in which we commission physical and mental health services. We have to do that in order to deliver better outcomes for people.

Every week in my surgery, I hear more and more residents complaining about having to wait too long for an operation, if they can get on to the waiting list at all. This top-down reorganisation is clearly exacerbating the problem. Why do not the Government just drop the Bill?

The hon. Gentleman is going to have to explain why the NHS’s performance is improving, and why it is better than it was at the election. We have cut mixed-sex accommodation, more people have access to NHS dentistry and hospital infections are at a record low. He talks about waiting times. The number of people waiting over a year for treatment has halved since the last election. The total number of people waiting beyond 18 weeks is lower than it was at the election, and the average wait for patients is lower than it was at the election. I am afraid that the premise of his question is completely wrong.

Following the closure of a specialist ME clinic in Bolton, will the Minister review the narrow NICE guidelines on the treatment of ME, so that patients can get the outcomes that work for them, and so that the doctors providing such treatment are not placed at risk of losing their licence?

My recollection is that NICE itself is undertaking a review of the guidelines relating to the commissioning and provision of services for ME. I will check to ensure that that is the case, and if I am wrong I will of course correct the record. I will write to the hon. Gentleman in any case. It is not for Ministers to write NICE guidelines; that is a matter for NICE to deal with independently.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues but, as usual, Health questions have been heavily oversubscribed. The House is in high spirits, and it is only Tuesday afternoon.