HC Deb 06 July 1999 vol 334 cc811-3
7. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

What progress he has made in implementing the action plan agreed at the cancer summit meeting in May. [88243]

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

Work is under way to implement the action plan agreed at the Prime Minister's cancer summit in May. The Medical Research Council is bringing together major funders of cancer research to consider how research can be better co-ordinated. National standards and performance indicators are still being developed as part of the implementation of the Calman-Hine approach introduced by the previous Government. A director of the cancer action team will take up a post in July. We hope that, as a result of those measures, we shall ensure that the standards of diagnosis and treatment of cancer that currently apply in the best units apply in every part of the country.

Dr. Gibson

The cancer summit at Downing street clearly threw down the gauntlet in regard to tackling and improving our dreadful cancer statistics. The all-party group on cancer has issued five policy pledges, which I have here. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the Cancer Research Campaign, which today launched an anti-tobacco research and surveillance unit to chase and harry the tobacco giants as they try to flout the advertising laws? Will he ensure that no doctor has to stand in front of a patient ever again and say, "I cannot give you the drugs to cure and treat your cancer because the health authority refuses to pay for them"?

Mr. Dobson

I generally welcome the actions of the Cancer Research Campaign—even, occasionally, when it asks for more money. I certainly welcome what it is doing in relation to tobacco. Every year, the tobacco industry has to recruit 120,000 people to make up for the 120,000 who are killed by following the makers' instructions on the packets in which the tobacco companies sell the cigarettes. They usually target that effort at children because most people start smoking when they are children. Anything that we can do to counter what they have been doing is to be welcomed. There is clear evidence that, almost 20 years ago, they were looking at ways of countering the possibility that tobacco advertising might be banned.

Tobacco advertising will be banned here from December; we will be the first in Europe to ban it, of which we are proud. [Interruption.] Whatever the mutterings from the Conservative party, we were glad that we stopped being part of the group that obstructed the introduction of an anti-tobacco advertising directive throughout Europe. We are glad that we have led the way in banning tobacco advertising, because tobacco smoking is the principal cause of the inequalities in health among adults in this country. Seventy per cent. of the deaths of working-class people, over and above what one would expect among middle-class people, are the result of smoking.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

Is the Secretary of State's pledge to introduce a maximum two-week waiting time for breast cancer treatment due to be met on schedule? What representations has he received regarding the clinical necessity of such a policy?

Mr. Dobson

I do not yet have the reports, but, so far as I know, we expect the target to be met in most places; I hope that it will be met in all places. Some clinicians have doubts about the target, but others have welcomed it. We believe that it is right and proper to set those targets, particularly because women are naturally extremely perturbed if they are referred by their general practitioner for urgent examination and diagnosis by a cancer specialist when it is suspected that they may have breast cancer. We were advised by the then chief medical officer that a two-week target was reasonable.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend again on his wisdom and intelligence in selecting the breast cancer service that is based at Royal Lancaster infirmary to be a national health service beacon? May I assure him that his judgment is sound? It is an excellent service. It will go from strength to strength, given the confidence that he and his Department have shown in it.

Mr. Dobson

I always welcome the odd compliment, as we get so much abuse—although, on reflection, I have concluded that we get far more abuse in the newspapers than we ever do in the House of Commons. As my hon. Friend knows, I was pleased to be at the new unit in Lancaster, where there was a good partnership between the clinicians, other people from the NHS, social services and the Macmillan organisation to provide a better service, which backs up the extended service that is available nearby in Preston.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

As vice-chairman of the all-party group on cancer, may I reassure the Secretary of State that none of the five sensible pledges for the comprehensive cancer strategy is described as an early pledge so Liberal Democrats hope that they be may implemented. But how can the Secretary of State implement any strategy on cancer without considering staffing? Is he aware that any expansion in the breast screening programme may be held up by a shortage of qualified radiologists, who are terrified to enter a sector where they are liable to be condemned by Ministers for errors in the service? Up to half of cytology screening units have lost their quality accreditation and his Department is still sending out redundancy notices to qualified, ready-to-be-consultant gynaecologists, when women are dying as a result of inadequate gynaecological cancer services.

Mr. Dobson

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a doctor, but I noticed a quick shift in his question from radiology to obstetrics and gynaecology. Certainly I am very well aware that we do not have sufficient radiologists to do the work that we should all like to be done. [Interruption.] I cannot imagine why any Tory Member is yakking about that. When they were in office, not enough radiologists were taken on, trained and subsequently made consultants. We want not only to try to make maximum use of the radiologists available but to recruit and train more radiologists as soon as possible. As I said, in some cases, we want to use lottery money—in other cases, just plain NHS money—to improve diagnostic equipment and make it more reliable. That would be good for patients and staff.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that all the cancer screening incidents in which things have gone wrong have not in any way been the responsibility of some of the individuals concerned. However, even some doctors have to take responsibility in those circumstances. If the independent panels that have been established to look into those matters criticise the doctors involved, I think that I am entitled to endorse that criticism.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

The gimmickry of the Prime Minister's cancer summit brings no comfort to cancer sufferers denied access to modern cancer drugs such as Taxol and Tamoxifen. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that, as a result of the work of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, further rationing of those drugs is prevented?

Mr. Dobson

I welcome the hon. Lady to her job. If she had asked anyone who attended the Prime Minister's cancer summit, she would know that none of them thought that it was a gimmick, and that, afterwards, they all praised it. I would rather take my cue from them than from the Tory party. I confirm that Taxol is likely to be one of the highest-priority drugs for consideration by NICE. If the institute advises that it should be rolled out across the country, rolled out it will be.