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Topical Questions

Volume 729: debated on Tuesday 7 March 2023

On Friday I was proud to announce the winners of the third round of the artificial intelligence in health and care award. Winners included projects within the NHS that identify women at risk of stillbirth, help with neurological conditions, find lung blockages and assess the quality of transplant organs, as well as a number of projects focused on cancer, identifying people’s predisposition and its presence. Since its inception in 2019, the AI in health and care award has invested more than £123 million in 86 promising projects, supporting more than 300,000 patients. AI will come to save countless lives in the NHS in the years to come, and that begins with the investment today.

The Secretary of State should know that I am the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for access to medical cannabis under prescription, for children with intractable epilepsy. The situation is as intolerable as ever. Both product supply and cost are causing families great pain, and their children are desperate. I urge the Secretary of State to meet me to discuss convening a roundtable to help identify solutions to the crisis of lack of access. I am still awaiting a response from his Minister from 18 January 2023.

I am very aware of the hon. Lady’s work as chair of the APPG, so I am not surprised that she asks about that important issue, which she has been assiduous in raising. I will flag up the follow-up with my ministerial colleague. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that the National Institute for Health and Care Research remains open to research proposals in this area. I encourage her to ensure through her work on the APPG that bids are made to generate the evidence that the clinicians who make decisions on prescribing need.

T6.   Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board was taken out of special measures in 2020 without any tangible improvements. Last week, the board walked out en masse because it no longer had faith in the Welsh Labour Government. The health service is now back in special measures. The Welsh Government run the NHS in Wales, so if the First Minister of Wales were to ask, would the UK Government step in to support them? (903933)

We are always happy to assist colleagues across the United Kingdom as part of our commitment to the Union. My hon. Friend is right to highlight current performance in Wales. As I have said, patients are waiting twice as long for hospital treatment in Wales as in England, and more than 50,000 people in Wales are waiting for more than two years for their operation.

When nurses and paramedics voted to take strike action, the Secretary of State refused to negotiate and said that the pay review body’s decision was final. He has now U-turned, but not before 144,000 operations and appointments were cancelled through his incompetence. Will he now apologise to patients for this avoidable disruption?

What the hon. Gentleman omits to remind the House is that at the time the demand from trade unions was for a 19% consolidated pay rise, which is very different from the basis on which talks have been entered into. The point is that we are in discussions with trade union colleagues. Trade unions and the Government have a shared purpose—to address the very real challenges that we recognise the NHS workforce have faced, particularly in the context of the pandemic—and a shared desire, which is to focus on patients and ensure that they get the right care to support them.

I think patients know who to trust, and it is nurses, not the Secretary of State. The Government have still learned nothing: despite a 98% vote in favour of strikes, the Secretary of State was sent to meet junior doctors without a mandate from the Prime Minister to negotiate. What is the point of this Health Secretary if he is in office but not in charge?

I have come to the House literally from a meeting with the trade unions: I met the NHS Staff Council this morning. Once again, hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench are writing their questions before they see what is actually happening.

T8. Sean Lynk, aged 30, in Ashfield, took his own life just before Christmas. No one saw it coming. Male suicide takes the lives of 12 young men every day in this country. It is the biggest killer of young males under the age of 40. Sean’s father Graham is coming next week to watch me speak in a Westminster Hall debate on male suicide, so could somebody from the Health team please meet Graham and me next Monday? (903935)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. We are launching a prevention of suicide strategy, and male suicide will be a particular focus, as it is a high-risk group. The debate next week will be answered by a Minister in the Department for Education, because it relates specifically to the national curriculum, but I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent.

Unprotected sun exposure causes skin cancer, and some 16,000 cases are diagnosed each year. Affordable sunscreen is therefore essential for protection. Will the Secretary of State help to tackle the issue by supporting the Sun Protection Products (Value Added Tax) Bill, a ten-minute rule Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) that would remove VAT on sun protection products?

Sun exposure is one of the most significant causes of cancer. That is one reason why we are working so hard with the NHS to reduce backlogs for people who are waiting for cancer diagnosis and treatment, including by rolling out teledermatology across the NHS to reduce diagnosis times. However, the hon. Gentleman’s question about VAT and skin cancer is a matter for the Treasury.

T9. Finding and fixing the underlying causes of health inequalities has defeated Governments of all types for decades. Less well-off British families still live significantly shorter, sicker lives than richer families, cramping their life chances and making it harder to avoid or escape poverty. The long-expected health inequalities White Paper is essential to changing that. Does the Secretary of State expect it to be published this month? If not, will he meet me to discuss it? (903936)

As we heard earlier from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), the major conditions strategy report will deal with those issues. However, it is also important to consider the variation in performance between integrated care boards and how we can raise the bottom quartile to the level of the top quartile—there is far too much variation within the NHS—and to be data-driven, so that when it comes to genomics and screening we can target the outliers more precisely. That is what is behind the issue to which my hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention.

T2. Will the 10-year cancer plan feature the distinctive approach that is required in relation to the early diagnosis of brain tumours? (903929)

Cancer will be a substantial part of the major conditions strategy. We will be looking at the major causes of ill health in the country, of which cancer is, of course, one. Part of that will involve ensuring that we are good at diagnosing cancer, because the earlier it is diagnosed, the more treatable it is, and hence the better the outcomes for people with cancer will be.

I welcome today’s announcement of the appointment of Professor Deanfield as the Government’s prevention champion with a focus on cardiovascular disease, one of the main causes of which is, of course, smoking. May I ask where we are with an updated tobacco control plan, and whether the Minister will look again at the introduction of a “smoke-free fund” paid for by the tobacco industry to boost those new public health budgets?

We will be setting out our next steps on smoking shortly, but we already have the lowest smoking level on record: it has fallen to 13%, partly as a result of the doubling of duty on cigarettes and partly owing to the introduction of a minimum excise tax. We will be investing £35 million in the NHS this year to ensure that all smokers who are admitted to hospital are given NHS-funded tobacco treatment.

T3. Recent analysis from Macmillan Cancer Support shows that 2022 was the worst year on record for cancer waiting times. Will the Minister consider the introduction of an urgent support package for UK cancer services in the upcoming Budget to support our hard-working staff and to ensure that there is additional capacity to deal with the current pressures on the system? (903930)

It is indeed a worrying experience for people to be waiting to know whether they have cancer or, having received a diagnosis, to be waiting for treatment. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that more people are currently coming forward for cancer checks, more people are being treated for cancer, and the NHS is reducing some of the backlogs following the pandemic.

I welcome the Government’s actions to deal with obesity, but it remains an increasing health issue for our nation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that educating children and parents about healthy eating should be a top priority—

My right hon. Friend’s question was so good that I was eager to answer it early. He is right to highlight this issue, which is being dealt with as part of a wider thrust within Government work on prevention, which is how we can empower the patient. That means getting more data to patients and using genomics and screening to ensure that they are better informed and can therefore opt to take decisions on healthy eating, rather than the state trying to impose those decisions on them in a top-down manner.

T4. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on osteoporosis and bone health. Our recent report, supported by the Royal Osteoporosis Society, showed that an investment of just £27 million pounds a year in fracture liaison services would deliver more than £600 million pounds of savings for the NHS over five years. Will the Minister meet me and the ROS to discuss our report, and will he commit himself to ending the postcode lottery by providing 100% coverage for FLS for over-50s in England? (903931)

I am happy for a member of the ministerial team to meet the hon. Lady, who has made a compelling case about the return on investment. We will obviously need to scrutinise it in more detail, and I am sure that my colleagues will look forward to doing so.

The Secretary of State is aware of Medway’s case for being part of the Government’s hospital building programme. It was the hardest-hit area during covid-19, and it has some of the greatest health inequalities in the country, and one of the busiest accident and emergency units in Kent. Will the Secretary of State visit Medway with me to witness our urgent need, so that we can be part of that hospital building programme for the future?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issues in Medway and those in Kent as a whole. When I met the chief executive of Maidstone Hospital yesterday, we discussed some of the innovation that it has introduced and the benefits of that innovation across the board. As for the new hospitals programme, I remind my hon. Friend of the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 22 February, when he confirmed the Government’s commitment to that programme.

T5. Every day, the families of women who took the drug Primodos in the 1960s and ’70s continue to suffer the consequences of a lifetime of disability. Baroness Cumberlege’s review made it clear that Primodos caused avoidable harm and that the families should be given redress, so why have the Government recently refused three mediation requests on behalf of those families? (903932)

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have huge sympathy for those affected by Primodos. He will also know that there is a legal case at the moment so I am unable comment at this time, but I am happy to discuss it with him further.

Over the past year or so, Bedfordshire’s fire service and ambulance service have taken innovative steps to co-operate to bring response times down. They are now working on a plan to deepen that co-operation. Will my right hon. Friend facilitate a meeting with the leaders of the fire service and ambulance service in due course when that plan is ready?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the community services that we are doing as part of our urgent and emergency recovery plan, looking at how we deliver care quicker through innovative models. One of those involves better co-operation with the fire service.

T7. York and Chester have many similarities, and it would appear that a complete absence of any access to dental services is another one. Can I impress on the Minister the urgency of improving access to NHS dentistry, because it is essential that my constituents do not have to travel for miles and worry for months? (903934)

We will be setting out further steps shortly, but there are 6.5% more dentists doing work for the NHS than in 2010 and we have started the reforms with more units of dental activity bands and a minimum UDA.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that about one third of the activity that takes place in GP surgeries could be transferred to pharmacies? What is he doing to promote that policy and deal with the British Medical Association’s reluctance to co-operate?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that a number of services that GPs currently offer could be performed by pharmacists, and we are looking at that in the context of the primary care recovery plan. This is also about looking at how we can relieve some of the workload pressure within primary care, and that is why we have recruited 25,000 additional staff to support GPs. It is also why we have over 2,000 more doctors in primary care.

T10. Some 30% of disabled people, including many of my constituents, are having to cut back on using essential medical equipment at home due to rising energy bills. Some 70,000 people have signed the charity Sense’s petition calling for long-term ongoing support for disabled people and their families. Will the Secretary of State deliver that support as a matter of urgency? (903937)

That is exactly why we are spending £55 billion this winter to help households and businesses with their energy bills. That is one of the largest support packages in Europe.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that community-based drop-in mental health services such as the Link centres in North Devon are vital to remote rural communities? Will he urge Devon County Council not only to continue those services but to improve and extend the model?

It is for schemes such as those that my hon. Friend highlights that we are investing a further £2.3 billion a year in mental health services, and that in turn is facilitating an extra 2 million patients accessing NHS-funded mental health support.

More than £300 million of the NHS dentistry budget is set to be clawed back by NHS England at the end of this month. That is not because of a lack of demand; it is because the Government’s NHS dental contract is broken and dentists are walking away from NHS work. Will the Government ringfence these funds, rolled over to next year, so that people who desperately need dental treatment can get those appointments?

That is exactly why we will continue to reform the contract as the hon. Lady suggests, and it is why we have started allowing dentists to do 110% of their UDAs, but she is right and we will go further.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, including my co-chairing of the all-party parliamentary group for hospice and end of life care. Now that integrated care boards have a duty to commission palliative care, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to assess delivery? Will he join me in calling for the North East and North Cumbria ICB to listen to the hospices in the Tees Valley, which would save our hospices and save the NHS money?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the extremely important work of hospices and to the fact that commissioning decisions are devolved to the integrated care boards so that they can target funding in the way that best serves local communities. He is quite right to lobby on their behalf and I am sure that his relevant ICB will take note of that.

Before we come to the statement on the Illegal Migration Bill, I wish to make a brief statement.

I am aware that there are a number of cases before the courts that relate to the subject matter of the Bill. Given the national importance of the issues to be discussed, I am prepared to exercise a waiver and allow brief references to those cases. However, I would ask Members to exercise caution and not to refer in detail to issues that are being considered by the courts.