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Topical Questions

Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2012

It is my privilege to serve as Health Secretary responsible for the national health service. I have identified four priority areas where I hope over the next two years to make the most progress. They are improving mortality rates for the major killer diseases so that we are among the best in Europe, which we are not at the moment; improving the way we look after people with long-term conditions such as diabetes and asthma; improving the way we deal with dementia, both as a national health service and as a society; and, perhaps most important of all, transforming the attitude to care throughout the NHS and social care systems so that the quality of care is seen to be as important as the quality of treatment.

What assistance can the Secretary of State give to the newly appointed chairman of the Sherwood Forest Hospitals Trust as he begins to wrestle with the private finance initiative signed under the previous Government and attempts to find repayments in excess of £40 million a year?

The first thing I would say to my hon. Friend about Sherwood Forest is that I know everyone in the House will join me in saying that our hearts go out to the families of the women who were misdiagnosed for breast cancer. We expect the local NHS to come up with a serious package of measures to make sure that that kind of thing cannot happen again.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about PFI. We inherited an appalling scandal. In order to tackle the PFI debts of just seven institutions, we are having to put aside £1.5 billion over the next 25 years, but we are working with all institutions to deal with this appalling debt overhang.

We know that the Secretary of State’s views on abortion do not have a religious basis, so does he care to share with the House the scientific evidence to support his view that abortion time limits should come all the way down to 12 weeks?

Four years ago I voted with my conscience, as I am sure she voted with hers, but I did so as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament and we have made it clear that it is not the policy of the Government to change the abortion law. My job as Health Secretary is to implement the elected will of the House, which voted in 2008 not to reduce the abortion time limits.

T2. What steps is the Department taking to tackle the growing incidence of drug-resistant cases of TB, which increased by more than a quarter in the past year? (124160)

We are funding TB Alert to raise public and professional awareness of TB. We also expect the NHS organisations and their partners to ensure early detection, treatment completion and co-ordinated action to prevent and control TB. The Health Protection Agency maintains diligent monitoring of all types of TB and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence also includes specific guidance on treatment and rapid contact tracing of people in contact with any type of drug-resistant TB.

T5. Before the last election, the Prime Minister promised a “bare knuckle fight” to save district general hospitals and promised that they would be enhanced. Now that we know that the board of St Helens and Knowsley hospitals is looking at a merger with Warrington and Halton to solve its problems, can the Minister give the House an unconditional assurance that no services at Warrington will be downgraded or removed, whether that merger goes ahead or not? (124164)

There was an option to discuss this issue at the board meeting on 29 August—not of the hon. Lady’s hospital trust but of the Halton hospital trust—because the Halton trust is looking to achieve foundation status. So I can reassure her that the services at Warrington hospital are safe.

T3. What is the administration overhead cost to the NHS and the Department this year and how does it compare with 2009-10? (124161)

I will get back to my right hon. Friend with the exact details, but the impact of the reforms that the Government have introduced will cut administration costs by a third across the whole NHS, leading to net savings of £4 billion during this Parliament.

T7. Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister told the House that Kettering hospital was safe. The following day—Thursday—evidence in a document leaked to the Corby Telegraph said that 515 of the 658 beds in the hospital could be lost. Will the Secretary of State ask the Prime Minister to come before the House to put right the statement he made to the House, but will the people of Corby not conclude that whatever the Prime Minister says, the national health service will never be safe in Tory hands? (124166)

What a disgraceful comment. We do not need the Prime Minister to come before the House because I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Kettering hospital is safe, and that it is totally irresponsible scaremongering by the Labour party in the run-up to a by-election to suggest anything else.

T4. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the progress that has been made to reduce mixed-sex wards and improve patient privacy at Medway Maritime hospital in my constituency? (124163)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the Government’s success in reducing mixed-sex wards not just in his hospital but throughout the NHS—we inherited a very different situation from the previous Government. Medway has been a pioneer in that area and my hon. Friend is right to commend the hospital and I put on record my thanks for all that it is doing.

T8. Will the Secretary of State take a close personal interest in the proposed changes to the NHS in Trafford? Given the uncertainty about alternative accident and emergency provision, and indeed the delays in commissioning community services, will he ensure that any final decisions are deferred so that they can be considered as part of the wider review planned for NHS services across Greater Manchester? (124167)

I should like to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that I take a close personal interest in all reconfigurations because they tend to end up on my desk. In this case, I encourage him to take part in the consultation for Trafford general, which will go on until the end of the month, but I remind him that the Government have put in place four important tests for any major reconfiguration. We must be satisfied that those tests are passed before we approve any reconfiguration, and those include the support of local doctors.

T6. As breast cancer action month comes to an end, recent research by Breast Cancer Campaign has shown that 76% of women would like more information about breast cancer signs and symptoms. What steps are the Government taking to encourage early diagnosis of breast cancer? (124165)

Achieving early diagnosis of symptomatic cancer is key to our ambition to save an additional 5,000 lives a year by 2014-15. As I explained in an earlier answer, we are providing more than £450 million in funding over the spending review period to support early diagnosis. From January to mid March 2013, we will be running a regional pilot of our previously tested local campaign on breast cancer symptoms in women over 70. We are targeting those women because that is an area where, unfortunately, survival rates are particularly poor.

Since his promotion, the Secretary of State has said little and, I assume, read a lot. Did his starter pack include details of the Prime Minister’s promise:

“This year, and the year after, and the year after that, the money going into the NHS will actually increase in real terms.”?

Did it include Treasury figures that show there has been a real terms cut each year since the election? What is he saying to NHS staff and patients who see the cuts and see the Prime Minister’s big NHS promise being broken?

May I just remind the right hon. Gentleman that there has been a real terms increase in NHS spending? That contrasts rather starkly with what was said by the Health Secretary under the previous Government. He said it would be irresponsible to increase health spending in this Parliament. We ignored that advice and NHS patients are benefiting.

T9. The food labelling consultation closed in August. Could the Minister indicate when the Government response is likely to be issued and confirm that the Government will not bring in unnecessary burdens on the food industry over and above those set out in European regulation? (124168)

This is an area that is important to the Government’s work. At this stage it is important to make sure that we do not over-regulate but that we work with industry and manufacturers. The four Governments across the United Kingdom will shortly issue a statement about front-of-pack nutrition labelling, and we expect to publish the formal response to this year’s consultation within the next few weeks.

The excellent children’s heart surgery unit at the Royal Brompton hospital will be pleased that a full review has been announced. Why does it have to report within four months, including the Christmas period, and why were previous referrals by both Brompton and Leeds refused? Will the review be full and impartial or not?

It will be a totally impartial and very thorough review. This is an extremely important decision, and that is why I asked the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to take the time that it needs to do the review properly; that is the least that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would want.

In order to get the Health and Social Care Act 2012 through this House, the Government gave explicit assurances that private companies could not cherry-pick the easiest procedures and patients, yet a recent letter from David Flory, the deputy chief executive of the NHS, back-pedals on the Government’s position, and shows that the Government are dependent purely on guidance. What can the Government do to put a bit of backbone back into that important policy?

May I reassure my hon. Friend that we are absolutely committed to the “no cherry-picking” provisions of the Act? We think that we have found the right way to achieve that in the NHS, and I will write to him to explain exactly how we will do that.

Given the apparent increase in spending in the NHS and the £4 billion surplus, will the Secretary of State look at lifting the pay restraint for lower-paid workers, to increase morale and boost productivity?

The £12 billion increase in spending on the NHS under this Government, which the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) thought was irresponsible, means that we will be able to do a lot more for patients, but there is also rising demand. If we do not have that pay restraint, we will not be able to meet the needs of an ageing population.

What specific consideration is being given to matching the annual growth funding uplift to actual changes in population? That is essential to my constituency, which has high population growth.

It is my understanding that that is already part of the formula, but my hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am sure that he joins me in wanting to make sure that the formulas are fair, so that we reduce health inequalities. I am happy to discuss the issue with him further.

The Public Accounts Committee says that 11 of the 144 foundation trusts across England are now in serious financial difficulty. What contingency funding is in place for those trusts, to protect patients?

We have a clearly set out programme for all those trusts, to make sure that they get back to the proper financial controls and proper governance structures that they need. We do not want to get into the business of bailing them out; we want them to stand on their own two feet. That is the vision of the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act 2003, passed by the hon. Gentleman’s party when it was in government.

Will my right hon. Friend extend the scope of personal budgets? They help not only patients, giving them wider choice, but carers, allowing them to leave their post.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. This is all about giving power to patients. Personal budgets have already been very successful in social care, and there are pilots under way in health care; the indications are that they are proving very successful.

The NHS has a responsibility for all patients in ill health, especially those who are elderly. Is the Minister aware of the information released last week that 3,000 general practitioners have drawn up a list of 7,000 patients who have less than a year to live—in other words, whose level of care is in question? Will the Minister condemn that list and take every possible step to ensure that every patient gets NHS care, irrespective of age?

The whole purpose of that approach is to ensure that patients get appropriate care at the end of their life. There is very strong consensus supporting that approach, including on the part of Marie Curie Cancer Care and Age UK. It is really important that all GPs and others involved in the care of people at the end of their life engage fully with the patient and the patient’s loved ones. That is the right approach.

My right hon. Friend will know that in this country, over 1,000 people a year die as a consequence of asthma. We have one of the highest prevalences of asthma in the world. Will he outline to the House what action we will take to get those mortality rates down?

We are doing a lot of work on the outcomes strategy that will directly impact on asthma sufferers. As part of that work—we are as concerned as my hon. Friend is about this—we are looking at every single asthma death in a 12-month period, starting from this February, to try to understand better the causes of mortality, because we need to make very rapid progress.

Further to the answer that the Minister of State gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), why do the Government not make it a criminal offence for those who recruit staff on the cheap not to bother checking employees’ employment records, qualifications or criminal records? Surely they are putting people’s lives at risk.

I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I am looking at the whole issue very closely. It seems to me that the fundamental point is to ensure that the people in charge at the corporate level are held to account for failures of care. We are very serious about ensuring that that happens.

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House since 1987; he knows perfectly well that points of order come after statements, not before them. I feel certain that he was just teasing the House and me.