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Topical Questions

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023

My priority as Secretary of State is to reform our NHS and social care system to make it faster, simpler and fairer. Since my appointment, we are making progress. To make our system faster, we have hit our manifesto target to recruit and retain 50,000 more nurses for our NHS, and to deliver 50 million more GP appointments, achieving both commitments months ahead of time. We have made an offer to health unions that I hope will end the consultants’ strike, which has disrupted care for the public and put a strain on staff. To make our system simpler, we have announced Pharmacy First, which will make it quicker and easier for millions of people to access healthcare on the high street. To make our system fairer, we have agreed a deal with pharmaceutical companies that will save the NHS £14 billion in medicine costs and give patients access to more life-saving treatment. The NHS is one of the reasons I came into politics—[Interruption.] I know Labour Members do not like to hear that, but I look forward to working with patients and staff across the country—[Interruption.]

Order. I do not need any help, thank you. The Secretary of State has answered the first question at length. I am sure that means she will answer the other questions much more briefly.

People with disabilities and serious health conditions already have higher living costs, and the proposals in the work capability assessment activities and descriptors consultation will mean that if they are reassessed they will lose £390 a month. I appreciate that the Secretary of State is new to her role, but will she commit as a priority to taking this up and consulting Cabinet colleagues, to ensure that people who are disabled and have serious health conditions are not pushed even further into dire poverty?

As I said earlier, careful thought has gone into the announcements that were made in the autumn statement, and of course I will work with the Secretary of State and the Chancellor to ensure that the commitments we already have to people living with disabilities are maintained, and that we have their wellbeing at the heart of all our policy making.

T4. The Secretary of State’s predecessor took a strong interest in the deaths that took place in the Essex mental health trusts, and a statutory inquiry is now taking place. Will she meet me and our Essex colleagues, and the families, to discuss that important inquiry, so that they can have justice for the loved ones they have lost? (900494)

I would be very pleased to meet my right hon. Friend, the families and other Essex MPs to discuss that important inquiry.

With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I welcome the Secretary of State and the new members of her Front-Bench team to their roles. I am honoured myself to stand at the Dispatch Box today for the first time on behalf of the shadow Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who is currently in Australia exploring international best practice in healthcare.

Talking of best practice, on this Government’s watch, people with suspected breast cancer are not getting it. The two-week target from GP referral to a first consultant appointment for breast cancer has not been met since March 2020. I know from my own experience of breast cancer that the waiting is terrifying, wondering whether it has been left too late and the cancer has become incurable. How much longer will patients have to wait before the Government can meet their own targets and deliver the timely care that patients need and deserve?

I genuinely thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome, and indeed I welcome her to her first outing at the Dispatch Box. As she was describing where the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) is, I had images of “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!” Sadly for citizens in Wales, they are experiencing what it is like to live under a healthcare system run by Labour, and they might fully agree with that sentiment.

The hon. Lady raises the important issue of breast cancer, and the NHS has an ambition to diagnose 75% of cancers as stages 1 or 2 by 2028. In January last year we provided £10 million of funding for 28 new breast screening units and nearly 60 life-saving upgrades to services in the areas where they are most needed, because we understand our constituents’ concerns and also their determination that we continue to improve cancer survival rates.

Unfortunately, the reality is that cancer referrals have only got worse with the Conservatives in government. In September 2023, only 74% of urgent cancer referrals to a consultant met that two-week target. That is the second-lowest rate for two-week referrals since 2009. When can the public expect this performance to improve?

We have in fact made progress by delivering record numbers of urgent cancer checks, and levels of first treatments following an urgent cancer referral have been consistently above pre-pandemic levels, with activity in September standing at 108% of pre-pandemic levels on a per working day basis.

T6. Some six months ago, the dentist based at Firthmoor community centre, serving 8,000 of my constituents, handed back its contract to the integrated care board. I was shocked last week to learn that the ICB has still not commenced the tender process to replace that provision. What advice can the Minister give me to ensure that our ICB is doing what it needs to do? (900496)

My hon. Friend has already raised this issue with me several times in the almost two weeks I have been in this post, so he is doing a great job, and he is right to raise it. Tendering exercises for NHS dentistry are bound by current procurement law, but I am happy to meet him to discuss how much faster we can go to get this sorted out.

Brexit broke Britain and it is continuing to wreak havoc on supply chains. The shortage of ADHD medication is now set to drag on into next spring. The shortage has seen 70% of patients forced to ration their supply of ADHD drugs, with 62% reporting an increase in suicidal thoughts. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that supplies of these vital medications are reaching pharmacies across the UK?

T9. My local practice, on Heath Lane in Earl Shilton, released its “did not attend” figures. Between 20 November and 24 November, 69 appointments—including 36 GP appointments and 28 nursing appointments—were missed. That was 12 hours lost in five days. If that is happening up and down Hinckley and Bosworth and across the country, that is thousands of hours being missed. I know that the Government are keen to see more on data, so will they consider statementing patients on how much missed appointments cost, because clinically that would make a big difference to the awareness of what people are cashing out on? (900499)

May I thank my hon. Friend for bringing his professional expertise to the Chamber? Of course, minimising “did not attends” is a critical part of ensuring that clinical time is optimised, and I will take his suggestion away and mull it over.

T2. I understand that pathology staffing levels at Royal Blackburn Hospital have not been reviewed for 15 years and the workload is up 300%. The national deficit in pathology is a ticking time bomb, as hospitals are unable to offer surgical and emergency services. What steps is the Minister taking to address recruitment and ensure that staff and patients are safe? (900492)

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. As she knows, we share a local NHS hospital trust. I am very keen to work with her on this issue. Of course, this Government are the first to introduce a long-term workforce plan for the NHS, which will deliver thousands more clinicians for a range of services across the NHS in the years to come.

Last month, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence said that Kaftrio, Orkambi and Symkevi are effective treatments against cystic fibrosis, but are too expensive to put on the NHS’s list. CF is a death sentence, so what can the Secretary of State do to make sure that this medication is put on the shelves to save thousands of lives in the future?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. NICE has yet to publish its final guidance and is continuing to work with all parties to address the issues raised in the draft guidance. The Government encourage manufacturers to work with NICE in setting a price that represents value for the NHS. I can assure the House that existing and new patients who are started on treatment while the NICE evaluation is ongoing will have access after it has issued its final recommendations, irrespective of the outcome.

T3. As we know, there are strong links between financial difficulties, mental health and suicide. The poorest 10% are twice as likely to die from suicide than the wealthiest 10%. With so many people struggling to make ends meet, how is the Minister going to ensure that those seeking financial support get access to mental health support, and that those seeking mental health support get access to help with their finances? (900493)

May I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work on the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention? She knows that financial difficulty is a priority area in the suicide prevention strategy, because we know it is a high risk factor. That is why suicide is now everyone’s business—not just the Department of Health and Social Care, but our colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and all Government Departments. Anyone who has financial stress and pressure will be given support to reduce their risk of suicide.

My constituent Dan Archer runs the highly successful Visiting Angels care agency, which has an annual staff turnover rate of just 13%, compared with an industry average of 60%. The secret to his success is very straightforward: paying decent wages, investing in training, valuing staff and prioritising client satisfaction. As a consequence, an enormous amount of money is saved on recruitment and invested into training and retention instead. Would the Minister meet my constituent to learn more about the success of Visiting Angels and how it can be shared more widely to help solve the shortage of workers in the care sector?

Order. Can Members please cut their questions in half? Otherwise, I will have to stop this questions session and people will not get a chance at all.

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s constituent. What the employer does is really important for retention and recruitment of adult social care staff, along with our ambitious workforce reforms for the care workforce.

T5. The Health Secretary declared at the weekend that the Government will miss their target to cut NHS waiting times if doctors strike to defend their pay and conditions, but she seems to forget that since the Tories took power in 2010, waiting lists for hospital treatments are up, A&E waiting times are up, cancer referral times are up and ambulance response times are up. The only thing that has fallen is not waiting times; it is public confidence in the Government. Will the Minister finally admit that the threat to waiting time targets is not striking doctors, but her party being in government? (900495)

I assume from the hon. Gentleman’s question that he fully supports our efforts to get consultants back into hospitals as well as junior doctors and doctors in training. It is all very well to sit there commenting, but we on the Government side of the House are working with doctors to try to help them look after the NHS for us all.

While I recognise that money does not grow on trees, neither do teeth. Can my right hon. Friend advise me of how quickly my North Devon constituents will be able to see the NHS dentists they so desperately need?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is a lot more that we can do. We are working at pace to see what announcements we can make on the dental recovery plan as soon as possible. In the meantime, she will be aware that, in the south-west, NHS England has commissioned additional urgent dental care appointments that people can access via NHS 111.

T7. Last week, the former Health Secretary admitted at the covid inquiry that sick pay across the UK is “far too low”. It is far lower than the European average and encourages people to go to work when they should be getting better. Does the Secretary of State agree with her predecessor? What discussions will she have with her Cabinet colleagues to improve the inadequate sick pay system? (900497)

I will not comment on evidence from the covid inquiry, given that it is an independent inquiry. However, on the general principle of encouraging people back into work, we have the plans set out by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor at the autumn statement. We want to encourage people back into work and to support them when they fall ill and need help from the state.

Last year, I asked the Government to show me the money with respect to £118 million of long-awaited capital funding for south Essex hospitals. With £8 million now delivered and the other £110 million now confirmed to be on its way, will the Secretary of State please come with me to Southend Hospital and see how that vital money will transform care in Southend and Leigh-on-Sea?

I will be delighted to visit that hospital with my hon. Friend—I suspect that I will be visiting a lot of hospitals.

T8. Was the Secretary of State consulted about yesterday’s announcement by the Home Secretary? If she was, did she agree with him that it will have no impact on overseas recruitment, or does she hear the fear of care providers about its consequences? (900498)

Yes, I was. What is more, we looked carefully at the figures in relation to overseas care workers. We are grateful to all international people who work in our NHS and our care system, but we need to tackle the migration rate, which is too high. The package presented yesterday by the Government is a thoughtful and careful one to tackle legal migration.

Stroud Maternity Hospital is doing a great job, but the post-natal beds are still not open. We have been chasing a ministerial meeting about that for some time. Will my hon. Friend meet me and the Gloucestershire NHS scrutiny chair, Andrew Gravells, to discuss the issue? We think that we need some help with the Care Quality Commission.

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that specific issue. We are doing a piece of work on a capital survey of all maternity units as well as working with the CQC on how capital infrastructure—beds and so forth—are impacting on maternity performance.

T10. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medications are essential to many people. In response to my written question last month, the Department outlined “disruptions to the supply”, which are expected to “resolve in early 2024”. How have the Government allowed that to happen? What plans does the Department have to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future? (900500)

As I said in an earlier response, there is a global shortage of ADHD medication. As we set out in our response to her written question, we expect that to be resolved shortly.

Lobular breast cancer treatment must be improved. Will the Minister meet my constituent and me to discuss how?

Cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease in children and young people, with nearly 500 dying every single year, yet the Government continue to reject calls for a dedicated children’s cancer plan. Why is that?

As the hon. Member knows, cancer will be part of the Government’s long-term strategy for diseases. Improving cancer treatment wait times is a top priority for the Government, with a key focus on the elective care recovery plan backed by an additional £8 billion in revenue funding across the spending review period.

In response to a written question that I submitted, I was told that the Department of Health and Social Care holds no central data for diagnosis and treatment of those with eating disorders and has no idea how many mental health nurse appointments are available in GP surgeries, despite all the funding. Do Ministers agree that that is a disgrace?

NHS England holds some of that data. Central data is one of the things that we are introducing right now to improve our access to data. It makes it difficult to plan services when we do not have that dataset, but we are working to resolve that as quickly as we can.

Farmers face many serious mental health challenges, including the financial precipice that this Government have led them to. According to the Farm Safety Foundation, 95% of young farmers in this country identify poor mental health as their biggest hidden challenge. Will the Minister meet me and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to discuss how we can best support farmers and farm workers to develop robust mental health strategies?

I attended the National Farmers Union session in Westminster just before the launch of our suicide prevention strategy. We recognise that isolation and loneliness in rural communities is an issue. I am happy to meet any hon. Members who wish to discuss how we can better support farmers, improve their mental health and reduce suicide rates.

Will the primary care Minister join me in congratulating the Conservative Mayor of Bedford borough for proposing council money to invest in primary care facilities in Great Barford, Wootton, Wixams and Kempston? Will she condemn Labour and Liberal Democrat councils for voting it down?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this issue. He is absolutely right; in local authorities we need mayors and integrated care boards supporting primary care and not listening to the Opposition, who talk it down the whole time. The 50 million more GP appointments is something to celebrate.

Given that obesity now costs the NHS and our economy much more than smoking, why does the Secretary of State support a total ban on smoking but think that measures to tackle obesity are nannyish?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a completely artificial barrier. Smoking is totally preventable; it is the cause of one in four cancers and 75,000 deaths. It is unbelievably appalling. Obesity is a complex area and one that the Government are focused on. We need to tackle it, but it is entirely different.

Would the Health Secretary please agree to meet me to discuss improved access to GPs and dentists in Bracknell Forest and Wokingham boroughs?

My constituent Air Marshal Dr David Walker, an inspirational leader and academic, sadly died of glioblastoma in June. When diagnosed, he and his wife Catherine were shocked to learn of the woefully low funding for brain and other less survivable cancers and established the charity the Right to Hope with Cancer. Will the Minister show the courage and leadership so epitomised by the life of Air Marshal Walker, and properly resource and fund less survivable cancers, so that everyone living with cancer has some sort of hope?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. My 23-year-old constituent Laura Nuttall, from Barrowford, died in May, five years after being diagnosed with a glioblastoma, having been given just a year to live. Before her diagnosis, Laura did work experience in my parliamentary and constituency offices. She was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. As I get up to speed in my new ministerial role, he can rest assured that I will make as much progress as possible in this area. It is a personal priority to me.

Order. We have gone considerably over time because I have endeavoured to ensure that everyone whose name is on the Order Paper has had a chance either in substantive questions or in topical questions to ask questions on these important subjects on behalf of their constituents. Again, I appeal to Members: they are not meant to read questions, they should just ask them. It is not meant to be a speech, and it is certainly not meant to be drafted for Twitter or Instagram. It should be a question to the Minister. Let us hope for some improvement.

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for keeping him waiting to ask his urgent question.