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Topical Questions

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2023

I am pleased to announce that we will be developing and publishing a major conditions strategy. Around 60% of disability-adjusted life years in England are accounted for by just six conditions: cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, dementia, musculoskeletal disease and mental health. An increasing number of us live with one or more of these conditions. Tackling them is a significant opportunity to improve the lives of millions of people and to support our goal to improve healthy life expectancy.

This work will bring together our existing commitments to develop plans for mental health, cancer, dementia and health disparities, and our new strategy will shift our focus on to integrated, whole-person care, with a focus on prevention, early detection and the use of innovative technology to improve patient outcomes. It will also improve how the NHS functions, relieving pressure on hospitals, promoting integration and putting us on a sustainable long-term footing.

We look forward to involving partners in the NHS, the charitable and voluntary sector and industry in developing this important work. Further detail about the strategy is included in my written statement published today. The statement also confirms that we will publish a suicide prevention plan this year, building on the important work of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), and I look forward to updating the House in due course.

During the passage of the Health and Care Bill in 2021, safe staffing levels in the NHS came up, and the Government told us then that they

“do not believe that there is a single ratio or formula that could calculate what represents safe staffing.”––[Official Report, Health and Care Public Bill Committee, 27 October 2021; c. 773.]

Is the truth not that the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is not about safe staffing levels, but about preventing nurses, doctors and paramedics from exercising their fundamental right to withdraw their labour, because they have lost all confidence in this Government?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is a fundamental right that people are able to strike, and the legislation will balance that right, in the same way that other countries in Europe do, with minimum safe staffing levels. That is something that the French, the Italians and many other European countries have, and the Bill is simply bringing the NHS into line with other health systems.

T3. Wrexham Maelor Hospital was built in 1934 and is no longer fit for purpose. It has been divided and sub-divided with modular add-ons. It is a labyrinth of rooms, ageing departments and corridors. I trained there as a nurse in 1990 and returned during covid, and there has been little improvement. It is no longer fit for a new city. Healthcare is devolved in Wales. The Welsh Labour Government have received the largest funding settlement since devolution began, so will the Minister agree that Welsh Labour needs to listen to the people of Wrexham and build us a new hospital? (903244)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point. I hope the Labour-run NHS in Wales takes heed of her comments. She brings professional experience to this issue and is absolutely right that there needs to be investment in the NHS estate in Wales.

Labour founded the NHS to be free at the point of use, and we want to keep it that way. Given that the Prime Minister has advocated charging for GP appointments, and one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors has urged him to charge for A&E visits, will he take this opportunity to rule out any extension to user charging in the NHS?

I can see from your reaction, Mr Speaker, and the reaction of colleagues in the House, that that is a misrepresentation of the Prime Minister’s position. For the majority of its existence, the NHS has been run by Conservative Governments. We remain committed to treatment free at the point of use. That is the Prime Minister’s position and the Government’s position.

I note that the Secretary of State did not rule out any future extension of user charging, and I am sure that patients will have noticed too. Given that the chief executive of NHS England has said that the NHS needs to expand training; that many of the Secretary of State’s own Back Benchers are echoing Labour’s calls to double the number of medical school places; and that he has no plan whatsoever to expand NHS medical school training places, nursing and midwifery clinical training places, to double the number of district nurses qualifying, or to provide 5,000 more health visitors, is it not time for the Conservatives to swallow their pride, admit that they have no plan and adopt Labour’s workforce plan instead?

I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman wants to misrepresent the Government’s plan, not least because his own plan is disintegrating before his own Front Bench. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who spoke earlier, contradicted his point. Not only have the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues contradicted it; even the deputy chair of the British Medical Association has said that Labour’s plan would create higher demand and longer waiting times. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about his own plans anymore; that is why he has taken to distorting ours.

Eastleigh, Hedge End and the villages have many vibrant pharmacies, but it is disappointing that Lloyds has closed two branches in my constituency. I welcome the additional £100 million that this Government are investing in community pharmacies, but can my right hon. Friend confirm how that funding will cut NHS waiting times and, more importantly, reverse the trend of closures?

My hon. Friend is right. Although pharmacies are private businesses, we invest £2.5 billion in the clinical services they provide. We put in another £100 million in September so that they can provide more services. The number of community pharmacists is up by 18% since 2017, and we have introduced the pharmacy access scheme to ensure that we support pharmacies in areas where there are fewer of them. Clearly, the solution is for pharmacies to do more clinical work, take the burden off GPs and provide accessible services. That is exactly what we will keep growing.

When I brought up pension tax rules in November, the Secretary of State agreed that pensions were an important issue and said that he would meet the Chancellor later that day. Can he give an update on the progress that his Cabinet colleagues are making to provide a permanent solution that will help retain NHS staff?

Those discussions are ongoing with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman will know that we made progress in the summer on a couple of areas in relation to pensions, and my right hon. Friend is having further discussions with us in that context.

I declare an interest as a GP and the immediate family of a GP and doctors. GPs are working incredibly hard in tough times. It is true that supply has gone up, but so too has demand. Change needs to happen in primary care, but one of the bedrocks is the GP partnership model. Does this Government agree?

Unlike the Opposition, we do not regard GPs’ finances as murky and we do not want to go back to Labour’s policy of 1934 by trying to finish off the business that even Nye Bevan thought was too left-wing. We do not believe in nationalising GPs; we believe in the current model. [Interruption.] We do not believe that people with a problem should immediately go to hospital, driving up costs and undoing the good work of cross-party consensus in the last 30 years. A plan that was supposed to cause a splash has belly-flopped.

Mr O’Brien, when I move on, I expect you to move on with me. I have all these Back Benchers to get in. I do not need the rhetoric; I want to get Members in—I want to hear them, not you.

T2. The UK has the sixth largest and richest economy in the world, yet data from the Food Foundation shows that in September 2022, 9.7 million people on these islands lived in food insecurity. That kind of malnutrition does not have a good impact on the health service. When will Ministers pick up the phone or nip along the corridor to the Department for Work and Pensions and tell it to drop its punitive sanctions regime, which pushes so many people into poverty and so many problems on to the NHS? (903243)

We are concerned about the exact same issues. The £900 cost of living payment for 8 million households is how we are trying to address this. It is also why we are bringing in the largest ever increase in the national living wage for 2 million workers.

The Secretary of State is well aware of the challenges facing Essex mental health care and the independent inquiry there into so many patients who have died. Can he tell the House and my constituents what steps he is taking to make this a statutory inquiry?

My right hon. Friend raises an extremely grave and serious issue that I know is of concern to a number of colleagues. Following representations from parliamentary colleagues, I had discussions with the chair of the inquiry, and I then with the chief executive and leadership team, in terms of the level of engagement with the inquiry. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), and I are closely involved in that issue, and I am happy to have further discussions with my right hon. Friend.

T4. While the Government have slashed medical school places by a third, Labour is committed to doubling the number of places in order to train a new generation of NHS staff. Will the Minister support me in backing the University of Portsmouth’s bid for a much-needed medical school for my city? (903245)

The hon. Gentleman is just factually wrong. We have increased medical undergraduate places by a quarter—I was in the Department at the time the decision was taken—so he is wrong on the facts. We also need to look at new ways of getting medics in and having more diverse recruitment in relation to social profile. That is why the apprenticeship route is an extremely important one that I am keen to expand.

The Select Committee looks forward to hearing about the major conditions strategy and engaging with it, as I hope Ministers will engage with our major prevention inquiry, launched last week. One of our national newspapers has contacted 125 acute trusts and asked them about visiting rights. Some 70% of them still have some form of restrictions in place, most commonly limiting the time that people can spend with their loved ones and the number of people who can sit by the bedside. On 19 May last year, the chief of NHS England said that we should return to pre-pandemic levels—

Order. The hon. Gentleman may be the Chair of the Select Committee, but I have to get other people in—it is not just his show.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. National NHS guidance is absolutely clear: providers are expected to facilitate visiting for patients in hospital wherever possible and to do so in a risk-managed way. It is up to individual providers—they do have discretion—but I understand the benefit that this brings to patients. It is a very important factor, and I will meet NHS England to discuss this further.

T5. According to a recent Care Quality Commission report, black people experiencing mental health crisis are 11 times more likely to be sectioned and to receive restrictive and violent community treatment orders. How will the Minister tackle these inequalities and implement the recommendations in the report? (903246)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is right that black and ethnic minority groups are more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. We are planning to reform the Mental Health Act. There has been pre-legislative scrutiny, and I hope that when we reform that Act there will be an improvement in those figures.

The Kent and Medway integrated care board reported that we had an increase of over 230,000 in the number of GP appointments offered to patients between September 2020 and September 2022. However, Medway has some of the lowest numbers of GPs per head in the country, and demand has increased. What support is the Department giving to the ICB to further increase access to GP appointments in Medway?

I welcome the increase in appointments and the numbers that my hon. Friend has drawn to the House’s attention. There is targeted funding of up to £20,000 for areas that are having difficulty recruiting; I am happy to discuss with her how we ensure that Medway can adequately access that fund.

T6.   Why are the Government continuing to delay their consultation on the regulation of physician associates? Constituents who are physician associates point out that they could be doing much more to perform vital duties and relieve pressure in our hospitals, which, I am sure the Secretary of State would agree, we desperately need. (903247)

I agree that that is an important issue and I am keen to expedite it; we are having urgent discussions about how we maximise the use of physician associates. The hon. Lady raises an important point that we are discussing with the devolved Administrations, because it applies across the United Kingdom. I am keen to move quickly on that important area.

“The Future of Pharmacy” report was published yesterday and highlighted again the funding pressures on the sector, including for the brilliant Belfairs Pharmacy in Leigh-on-Sea, which asks whether the Minister will urgently consider writing off the £370 million of covid loans given to pharmacies during covid-19.

We are working to increase the amount of funding going into pharmacies so that they can do more clinical services. I will look closely at the issue that my hon. Friend raises.

T7. Last week, the Government decided to mothball the covid-19 testing facility in Leamington, which will leave up to 670 people without a job. The lab reputedly cost more than £1 billion—perhaps the Minister could confirm—and when the investment was made, I was promised that it would be used for other purposes, such as pathological testing and other diagnostics. Why is that not happening? (903248)

As the hon. Gentleman knows—we discussed the issue over the telephone last week—the decision was taken to wind down the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory because the number of PCR tests has reduced significantly and NHS laboratories can take that capacity. There is a residual service and additional use of the laboratory is being considered.

I recently met a dentist in my constituency whose practice group operates over 19 sites where the rate for units of dental activity ranges from £25 to £36. He is convinced that there needs to be a uniform UDA rate to attract NHS dentists to areas such as Cleethorpes. Can the Minister consider that?

Absolutely; we are looking at that issue. We have already brought in a new minimum UDA value, and we would like to deliver more. We will look at measures to encourage people to work in areas with the greatest shortages.

T8.   On World Cancer Day 2022, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), announced a 10-year cancer plan to make us a world leader. Today, cancer services are buckling under immense pressure. Can the Minister confirm that the strategy will be fully resourced and will she commit to working with cancer charities to ensure that it is delivered? (903249)

Right now, we are seeing more people come forward for cancer diagnosis or to be given the all-clear. We are supporting services with an extra £8 billion for elective recovery. Cancer is an important part of our major conditions strategy, which the Secretary of State just announced, because we are determined to include patients’ cancer outcomes.

In today’s Shropshire Star, my local paper, there is an eight-page spread on what is happening to healthcare in Shropshire, which is described as a war zone. Will the Secretary of State meet me and other Shropshire MPs to discuss the challenges we face?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issues in Shropshire. I draw her attention to the fact that we have more doctors, more nurses and more funding going into the NHS, and more people are being treated.

T9. In the light of the Government’s welcome announcement of the Strathdee rapid review of in-patient mental health services, can we revisit West London NHS Trust’s decision to make the covid closure of the Wolsey wing permanent, which leaves Ealing, the third biggest borough in London, with no acute mental health beds for under-65s? (903250)

Local healthcare decisions are made by local commissioning groups, but I am happy to raise that on behalf of the hon. Lady. We are putting an additional £2.3 billion a year into expanding and transforming mental health services in the community and patient services.

Although I welcome the new investment in emergency mental health services that was announced this week, does the Secretary of State agree that we must not lose sight of the fact that we need a long-term plan for the transformation of mental health services so that we achieve parity of esteem between mental and physical health in the NHS?

I do agree. That is why the long-term plan signalled the importance of mental health and the parity of which my hon. Friend speaks. It is also why, as the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), has said, additional funding is being targeted at mental health—the extra £2.3 billion a year from 2024—signalling this Government’s commitment to mental health, as he will have seen with the announcement on mental health ambulances this week.

T10. Suicide rates in England are as high now as they were 20 years ago, yet the written ministerial statement today simply says that a strategy will be published later this year. Saving deaths by suicide cannot wait. When exactly will the suicide prevention strategy be produced? (903251)

What we have signalled, and I agree with the hon. Member on this, is the importance of the suicide prevention plan. It is something my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), highlighted. I am keen to work with him and Members across the House on that. I set out in the written ministerial statement today not a specific date, but our commitment to a bespoke plan, and I am very happy to work with her and other Members on that.

Current plans for community diagnostic hubs in North Staffordshire would see only a single facility, which is meant to serve over half a million people. That is totally insufficient, so will the Secretary of State look at my suggestion that there should be two of these facilities in North Staffordshire?

Will the Secretary of State for Health—today, on the record—condemn the call from his predecessor to impose charges on visits to the GP or to A&E?

I am not sure how many times one needs to say the same point. The Government’s position on this is clear: we are committed to treatment free at the point of use. That is the Government’s position, and it has been throughout the NHS’s history, the majority of which has been under Conservative Governments.

The most recent figures published by the UK Health Security Agency show that, last year, the rate of syphilis cases reached its highest since 1991 and the total number of cases hit its highest since 1948. That shocking increase in syphilis transmission is just one reason why we need the Government to set out their vision for sexual and reproductive health in their long-overdue sexual and reproductive health action plan. Can I therefore ask the Minister to set out when the plan will be published and what she is doing to stop the spread of syphilis?

Can I just reassure the hon. Lady that we take sexual health services very seriously? Local authorities in England have received more than £3 billion from Government to support those services. We have produced a number of plans to improve sexual and reproductive health, from the HIV action plan in 2021 to the women’s health strategy, which focuses on sexual health as well.

The all-party group for diagnostics will hold its inaugural meeting on 8 February, and plans to conduct a short inquiry with the aim of providing a blueprint for how community diagnostic centres should operate in the longer term. As part of the inquiry, will my right hon. Friend commit to meeting members of the group to discuss what more the Government can do to maximise the role of diagnostics in addressing the pressures on the NHS?

I am very happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. She is absolutely right to highlight the centrality of diagnostics and its importance in our overall plan to get elective numbers down.