HC Deb 02 February 1999 vol 324 cc723-4
12. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

What recent representations he has received on the unavailability of particular (a) drugs and (b) treatments to patients in certain health authorities. [67170]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)

I have received representations about availability on the national health service of certain drugs in certain parts of the country. The current situation is quite unsatisfactory, which is why we are establishing the National Institute for Clinical Excellence—NICE—chaired by Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, to assess new drugs and new treatments and to issue authoritative guidance. NICE will ensure faster access to modern treatment right across the health service—which is why it has the support of doctors, nurses, midwives and other NHS staff.

Mrs. Bottomley

Many people hope that the new National Institute for Clinical Excellence will indeed encourage innovation and change. However, people are not prepared for the institute to act as a straitjacket, dampening down innovation and making it more difficult to develop and make available new drugs. Recently, the Secretary of State was condemned by the British Medical Association for an inequitable and irrational approach in reaching his rationing decisions. Health authorities are in despair about how on earth they are to meet the new pay awards. Will the Secretary of State now accept the offer of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and lead a mature debate on the establishment of rationing and on how decisions are made in the national health service.

Mr. Dobson

All I can say in response to that is that the professions welcome the establishment of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. The BMA chairman was chairing the meeting at which I announced the appointment of Sir Michael Rawlins, and said that I had been as good as my word in appointing to chair the institute someone who commanded the professions' respect. The professions welcome the establishment of the organisation, which I am sure will do a good job. I am sure also that, if anyone is in despair running parts of the national health service, I should not want them to be working in despair—they can go work somewhere else.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Did not my right hon. Friend inherit a situation that included restraints—which varied across the country—on the availability of some drugs, such as beta-interferon, and huge disparities in the availability of some treatments because of huge waiting lists? Will he ensure that NICE maintains need as its primary criterion when it considers some of the alternative treatments that may become available because of genetic and other treatments.

Mr. Dobson

Certainly, NICE will examine all new treatments and new pharmaceutical products, and it will issue authoritative advice. In some cases, it will be saying, "Get on with it, quickly. This is a good development, and you should introduce it right across the country." Currently, no one performs such a function. In other cases, NICE may say, "We are not too sure about this. The results of its effectiveness testing may not be as good as we should have liked." If so, NICE may recommend that the treatment or product should be made available systematically in only one part of the country, so that further proper tests and assessments can be performed.

The object of the exercise is to have fast access to modern treatment right across the national health service, and not to maintain the ridiculous current situation, in which some drugs are available in one part of the country but not in another, because of the lack of clear advice given under the system that we inherited from the previous Government.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Is the Secretary of State aware that 22,000 of my constituents made active representations about the closure of the Royal Haslar hospital in my constituency which would be a disaster for the defence medical services and a catastrophe for local residents? Will Ministers take a personal interest in the disaster that would result from the closure, particularly as the hospital in question is close to the constituency of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), and the closure would have reverberations there too?

Mr. Dobson

It is clear that the closure of the Royal Haslar hospital will have an impact on health care in Portsmouth and in Hampshire generally and we are looking into that. I intend to meet the admiral who chairs the Portsmouth acute trust to discuss the matter. He is a most admirable admiral and probably carries a little more weight at the MOD than an ex-civilian.