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Children’s Cancer Services

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether a fully funded delivery plan has been agreed in relation to NHS England’s proposal to relocate children’s cancer services away from The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to other providers across London.

NHS England has decided that Evelina London should be the future location of the principal treatment centre, following extensive engagement with a wide range of stakeholders across the south London/south-east region. A delivery plan has been assessed as affordable by NHS England, with capital funding in place, and remains subject to robust financial scrutiny. Ministers are considering next steps.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his Answer and draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. This is an extraordinary act of self-harm. NHS England, in a decision delegated to the London region, announced that it will be closing the world-leading paediatric cancer services of the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton and transferring these to the Evelina Hospital in central London. The Royal Marsden is the largest centre for clinical trials for new drugs for children with cancer in Europe. Its unique co-location with the ICR and the team developing new adult cancer drugs and researching how these can be used to help support childhood cancers means risking the loss of many of these trials and breakthroughs by breaking this bond. Will my noble friend undertake to ask the Secretary of State to call in this decision, as legislation allows her to?

First, I thank my noble friend for the tireless work she does on behalf of the Royal Marsden, and convey the views of probably all noble Lords on the fantastic work the Royal Marsden does. The current situation, as I think noble Lords know, is that the NHS has reached a decision. The Secretary of State does have the power to call in exceptional cases, and as a result of that, Minister Stephenson is undertaking a fact-finding mission. I have set up a meeting with him to discuss this, and my noble friend is very welcome to join me at that meeting.

My Lords, structural healthcare decisions are among the most challenging, and my worry is that there are greater risks now the Evelina has been chosen. It will be the only principal treatment centre in the UK where neurosurgery is not carried out on-site. St George’s has over 25 years’ experience in caring for children with cancer and a dedicated staff team of over 430 people, only four of whom will be moving to the Evelina. What actions will the Government be taking to monitor and ensure a continuing standard of cancer care for children?

Ministers are on a fact-finding mission. I understand the points the noble Earl makes; the NHS made the point that it wants cancer treatment to be co-located alongside an intensive care unit. Following Professor Sir Mike Richards’ review, it believes that it is best to have those services co-located, which is why it has chosen the Evelina. There are pros and cons to every decision, and that is why Ministers are doing further fact-finding.

My Lords, this decision is daft on many counts, some of which have already been expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield. I declare an interest in that I am an occasional contributor to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. As has already been mentioned, the Royal Marsden is a world-renowned centre for cancer research, including in children.

Going back to the decision, even if the Royal Marsden was closed down and all the children’s cancer services were shifted to the Evelina, it does not and will not have all the facilities to deliver medical oncology services to children. Compromised children with cancers will then have to be transferred out of the Evelina to other places where radiotherapy is available. Why shut down a centre which last year transferred to intensive care only three children out of 700—all of whom survived —and instead use another centre which does not have major radiotherapy facilities?

The noble Lord makes some very good points. Following the NHS review and the evidence put forward, specific cancer treatments will take place at University College Hospital London, which has two particular benefits for patients: radiotherapy and proton beam technology. Ministers want to understand and make the points the noble Lord has made, and to see whether this is a decision we are comfortable with. As I said earlier, since January 2024 we have had the power to call in a decision in exceptional circumstances.

My Lords, we have heard a lot in this House about joined-up thinking, but this is not joined-up thinking. Instead, we are thinking of fragmenting a service which works very well. Co-location is important, in order to enable experts to talk, research and take decisions together. Can the Minister do everything he can to change the decision?

I am happy to go through the facts. I hope noble Lords know me well enough to know that I like to look at all the evidence, and, clearly, we are at that stage. I saw an excellent example just the other day in Cambridge, where we are building a new centre to put research and treatment under one roof. That, of course, is what the Royal Marsden has for children’s cancer, so I am aware of the benefits and they will be at the front of my mind.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister understands that cancer cannot be seen as an isolated disease. One aspect of that is how you provide for children in their entirety during the treatment, which does not always involve just cancer but other organs and other parts of the child.

Yes, and the Royal Marsden has a very good track record on that. As was explained to me on the Cambridge visit, having all those services together under one roof is a definite advantage. When the pros and cons are weighed up, that will definitely be a pro.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware by now that there is considerable doubt, controversy and concern around this decision. He has said—and we all take it in good faith—that the Secretary of State is calling this in at this stage for fact finding. When does he anticipate that such a review of the facts might be finished?

It is only now that the facts are starting to come to us. On something as important as this, we definitely do not want to be hurried into it. Normally, I would be saying at this Dispatch Box that I want to “go, go, go”, but on something as profound as this I want to make sure that we are not hurrying into it. All noble Lords will agree that we have a very good service in operation. For instance, I looked at the Royal Marsden’s stats on speed of treatment and diagnosis, and they are excellent. I am afraid I cannot give a timetable because, quite deliberately, I want to make sure that we do not rush into any decision until we know all the facts.

My Lords, there seem to be two issues here. One is the seemingly inexplicable nature of the decision, but also the process by which it was made. Can the Minister please talk to his colleague, not only on a fact-finding mission about this decision, but about how decisions such as this are taken within the NHS, what issues are being considered, and which are considered more important than others? It seems to me that there is an imbalance in the decision-making process. Perhaps that is also an issue that needs to be addressed.

I want to be fair to the NHS here. It has done an extensive study, with a lot of professionals rating extensive criteria, and they really did believe that in certain areas, the Evelina scored higher than St. George’s and the Marsden. It is a balanced decision; all I can do is absolutely promise noble Lords that we will take all those factors into account.

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister is looking at all of this, but given the difficulties of achieving the number of clinical trials in the UK, what effect is anticipated on research because of the proposed relocation of paediatric cancer services? Is there an intention to factor into the final decision the need to expand research capacity for childhood and adult cancers?

Among the criteria the NHS has taken into account are clinical services, the patient care experience and research, and it scored the Evelina higher on research. I want to understand that, because many noble Lords will be surprised by that finding. I assure the noble Baroness that research and the ability to do clinical trials, which is a vital component of our life sciences industry, is an important factor in this decision.