HC Deb 22 November 1977 vol 939 cc1290-2
4. Mr. Cormack

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many people were awaiting admission into National Health Service hospitals at the latest date for which figures are available.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. David Ennals)

At 31st March, about 596,000.

Mr. Cormack

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is a shameful figure that reflects badly upon the National Health Service? Will he explain how he can possibly reconcile it with a recent statement to nurses and others to the effect that the Health Service is in a better state than ever before?

Mr. Ennals

The hon. Gentleman did not ask me what the figures were before. In fact, the number on the waiting lists is decreasing. The March figures show a reduction of almost 11,500 compared with December 1976. Successive Governments have had to contend with high waiting lists. Even if we go back to 1951, when we had a smaller and younger population, the number on the waiting lists was getting on for 500,000. This has been a steady problem.

Mr. Grocott

Why is it not possible at least to achieve some sort of equality in the waiting lists between hospitals in the same region? Is it not the case that many patients would be prepared to travel quite a long distance to a hospital to receive attention if that were necessary and if they could be treated more quickly than at the hospital nearer to their home?

Mr. Ennals

That is right. We have carried out a recent study of the waiting lists, and a number of proposals for the management of waiting lists have been put forward, including precisely the one put forward by my hon. Friend. It is true that some consultants have much longer waiting lists than others. It is true that some hospitals have much longer waiting lists than others. Some regions and areas have longer waiting lists than others. This is one of the suggestions that have been made. I and the health authorities have determined that we shall reduce the level of waiting lists. We have set ourselves a target—namely, to ensure that no urgent cases wait more than a month and no non-urgent cases wait more than a year.

Mr. Peter Mills

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise the appalling situation—I am not exaggerating—at the Plymouth Eye Infirmary, which probably has the longest waiting list of any hospital in the country? Is it not a shame that people's eyesight should be slowly deteriorating because of a lack of funds and a consequent lack of ability to treat these people in the infirmary?

Mr. Ennals

I cannot give an explanation in that particular case. However, the number of consultants in the Health Service is steadily increasing. It increased by 3.4 per cent. last year. The amount of money available to assist the Health Service has also increased. The health authorities are spending £9½ million this year. That sum is designed positively to reduce waiting lists. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are being as active as we can in dealing with the problem.

Dr. M. S. Miller

There is no room for complacency in these matters, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, although there is sympathy everywhere for those suffering from non-urgent conditions, we should get this matter into perspective? Will he tell us just how much waiting time there is for any kind of acute surgical or medical condition in the National Health Service?

Mr. Ennals

In the majority of cases there is little wait if the matter is urgent. That should be recognised. Most of those who are having to wait are non-urgent cases. When a case becomes urgent, it goes to the top of the list.

Dr. Vaughan

But is it not a fact that acute cases are waiting for investigation? Is it not a fact that under the right hon. Gentleman's Government the waiting list has increased by nearly 100,000 since 1974? Is he aware that we now have the longest waiting list of any country in Western Europe?

Mr. Ennals

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the number of people on the waiting list is now decreasing. It would be nice if Opposition Members were to recognise that we are now beginning to see a decrease in the scale of the problem. That is because there has been a substantial increase recently in hospital activity. The number of in-patients treated increased by over 5½ per cent. in the 12 months to December 1976, and the number of out-patients treated increased by 8 per cent. We now have a period of increasing activity in the Health Service, which explains why the numbers on the waiting lists are coming down. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the first time the waiting list went over 500,000 was when his party was in office.

Mr. Cormack

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment.