HC Deb 28 July 1998 vol 317 cc151-2
1. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

What steps he is taking to improve access to general practitioners, with particular reference to areas with a low number of general practitioners per 1,000 population. [50976]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)

We have introduced a range of initiatives, such as a salaried general practitioner scheme, that will be beneficial particularly in areas with low GP numbers.

Mr. Healey

I thank the Minister for his response, which was encouraging. However, is he aware that simply to bring our patient waiting list sizes down to the national average, we have to increase the number of GPs by one third in Rotherham, by one quarter in Barnsley and by one fifth in Doncaster? Is he aware that increasing GP numbers is one of the central objectives of the health action zone in the South Yorkshire coalfields? Will he therefore tell me what operating freedoms he is considering giving to health action zones to tackle the problem of GP numbers, and when he expects to reach a decision on the matter?

Mr. Milburn

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Health action zones are currently working up their outline bids into full proposals, which we shall be examining very carefully. We want to ensure that the difficulties are plugged in all parts of the country, especially those with problems—which the Government have inherited—in recruiting GPs. I can tell my hon. Friend that his health authority has just agreed additional funding for a salaried GP post. I hope that that will be helpful. He will be aware that the Government have concluded negotiations with the British Medical Association to introduce a salaried GP scheme, and also to beef up the GP retainer scheme. As he will also be aware, many general practitioners have worked in, but left, the national health service. The Government want to recruit them back into work, for the benefit of patients.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

I look forward—I say rather unexpectedly—to doing battle with the Minister in the next year. I know that he had high hopes of promotion, which he well deserves. I can only assume that the Prime Minister had given him an early pledge.

Does the Minister agree with the BMA chairman that the extra GP trainee places will come on stream only in about 16 years' time? Moreover, the BMA says that the promised 7,000 extra doctors are those who are already doctors. What proportion of those 7,000 doctors will come from overseas? Does he agree with the BMA that we should use only United Kingdom trained doctors, and that importing doctors from overseas will not solve the problem?

Mr. Milburn

I had planned on saying that the hon. Gentleman's first remarks were unworthy of him, but perhaps they were not. The British Medical Association is wrong on the more substantive issue that he raised. Doctors do not grow on trees—they cost extra cash, which is precisely what the Government have provided in the comprehensive spending review. If we had not provided extra cash, we would not be able to recruit extra doctors or to give the go-ahead to a massive expansion in the number of GP medical students—which I hope that he will welcome.

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